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Biden’s apples-and-oranges comparison on crime data

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in a speech on Aug. 31 reacted to President Trump’s response to deadly clashes amid protests. (Video: The Washington Post)
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“But look, if Donald Trump wants to ask the question, who will keep you safer as president, let’s answer that question. First, some simple facts. When I was vice president, violent crime fell 15 percent in this country. We did it without chaos and disorder. And yes, we did it with Democratic mayors. And most of the major cities in this country, the murder right now is up 26 percent across the nation this year under Donald Trump.”

— Former vice president Joe Biden, in a speech in Pittsburgh, Aug. 31, 2020

In a speech that excoriated President Trump as a threat to the safety of all Americans, the Democratic presidential nominee offered some interesting statistics.

But they are apples and oranges. Let’s take a look.

The Facts

Note that while Biden is discussing his record, he mentions violent crime. But when he discusses Trump, he talks about murders.

It turns out this selective presentation puts Biden in the best possible light and Trump in the worst possible light.

As its source for the violent crimes stats, the Biden campaign pointed to a 2017 report by our colleagues at on statistics about the Obama administration. Citing the FBI, said: “The number of violent crimes per 100,000 population was nearly 16 percent lower in 2016 than in 2008, and the property crime rate dropped nearly 24 percent. But the murder rate didn’t drop at all — it was 5.4 per 100,000 both in 2008 and in 2016.”

So if Biden compared his record on murders, he wouldn’t have much to brag about. There was no improvement under Obama.

As for the stats so far in 2020, the campaign cited calculations by crime analyst Jeff Asher, who compared the non-population-adjusted data for the 25 biggest cities for the first seven months of the year with the first seven months of 2019. The number of murders went up 26 percent, but the number of violent crimes is essentially flat.

So again, if Biden had compared Trump’s record on violent crimes, it would have shown little change from year to year.

There’s the separate problem of comparing eight years of data with just seven months. It’s a trick that Trump should be familiar with. During the 2016 campaign, Trump seized on FBI data showing homicides were up 10.8 percent nationwide in 2015, which was the biggest percentage jump in a single year since 1971.

“Criminal justice experts warn against comparing crime trends from short periods of time, such as month over month or year over year,” we noted at the time. “An annual trend can show a trajectory of where the trend might be headed but still does not give a full picture. Many criminal justice experts say crime trends are determined over at least five years, preferably 10 or 20 years, of data.”

Indeed, Asher noted on Twitter that the disconnect in the trends for homicide and violent crimes is highly unusual.

“This would be an unprecedented trend as far as crime trends go,” he said. “Violent crime and murder almost always move in the same direction and they are never this far apart nationally.”

It’s far too early to understand why this might be happening. Perhaps crimes other than murder are not being reported as quickly. Perhaps the pandemic messed up the crime statistics in ways that are not yet clear. In any case, it underscores why at this moment this is not good data to use for comparisons.

It would have been more appropriate for Biden to have used Trump’s record so far in his term, not just a seven-month sliver. The data is incomplete for 2019, but for the first two years of Trump’s presidency, both the violent crime rate and the murder rate fell, according to the FBI.

“He made two distinct points, and he made the different categories clear,” a Biden campaign official said. “First, in order to refute Trump’s false accusations regarding his own record and that of Democratic mayors, he cited that during the Obama-Biden administration, when many of the same major cities had Democratic mayors, violent crime rates fell. Then, as one of a series of numbers he gave about safety under Trump (including about coronavirus deaths), he underlined rising murder rates in large cities, which falls under a similar time frame and contradicts Trump’s depiction of his own record on safety.”

The Pinocchio Test

Biden was clear in his presentation and he cited accurate numbers. But it’s still a matter of apples and oranges — both in terms of comparing inconsistent timelines and also murders versus violent crime.

We doubt it is a coincidence that Biden chose data that reflected best on his record. Biden could have said that the murder rate did not improve under Obama and murders have jumped in the last seven months. Or he could have said violent crime fell under Obama but little has improved this year. At least then the data would have been consistent, even if the timelines did not match up.

Biden earns Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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