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Youngkin’s claims about Virginia crime rates under McAuliffe

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin speaks during a campaign event with his wife, Suzanne Youngkin. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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“During [Terry] McAuliffe’s tenure as governor, the murder rate went up 43 percent and the rape rate went up every year.”

— Glenn Youngkin, Republican nominee for Virginia governor, in a YouTube video, Aug. 19

“No wonder the murder rate went up 43 percent when McAuliffe was governor.”

Youngkin campaign ad, July 29

The Youngkin campaign says former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) is “too dangerous for Virginia,” pointing to crime statistics covering the Democrat’s term from 2014 through 2017. McAuliffe is once again the Democratic candidate for governor this year.

Both of Youngkin’s claims are technically accurate but missing context, showing how a carefully scripted talking point can obscure the overall crime situation in a state.

The Facts

McAuliffe was governor from Jan. 11, 2014, to Jan. 13, 2018, so we will take the 2013 year-end statistics as our baseline and 2017 as our endpoint. Our source is the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting System.

We usually take a dim view of claims that any governor can swerve crime rates during a term of office, as these rates are influenced more by long-term trends and demographics outside their control. Most violent crimes are the province of local, not statewide, law enforcement agencies. But we won’t factor this into our ruling.

Virginia recorded 298 homicides in 2013 and 416 homicides in 2017, a 40 percent increase. But Youngkin is talking about the “murder rate,” or the number of homicides per 100,000 people. The Virginia homicide rate was 3.9 in 2013 and 5.6 in 2017, a 44 percent increase.

The state recorded 2,370 rape cases in 2013 and 3,058 in 2017, a 29 percent increase. The rate for this crime went from 28.4 to 35.7 per 100,000 people, a 26 percent rise.

As Youngkin said, this rate increased every year McAuliffe was governor. (Looked at another way, the state recorded 28.4 such crimes in 2013, 29 the next year, 29.9 the one after that, 33.6 the following year, and ended with 35.7 per 100,000 people.)

The question is how these pieces fit into the national puzzle.

Virginia’s homicide rate was below the national average for McAuliffe’s first two years in office and above it his last two. The rate of rape cases was consistently below the national average.

When looking at all classes of violent crimes — including robbery and aggravated assault — Virginia was one of the safest states in the country during McAuliffe’s governorship, as the map below shows. The state’s violent crime rate was about half the rate for the entire United States.

In McAuliffe’s last two years, as the homicide rate drifted above the U.S. average, the state nonetheless was the fourth safest in the country when looking at all violent crime, after Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire.

In response to our questions, a Youngkin campaign spokesman said that the aggravated assault rate also rose while McAuliffe was in office. That’s true, but the increase was a relatively modest 7 percent and the rate of such assaults was far below the national average.

The rape rate decreased in Georgia, North Carolina and Massachusetts during the same four years, while Maryland’s rate was virtually unchanged, the spokesman added. Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez said, “Terry McAuliffe failed to keep Virginians safe the last time he was governor, and he will fail again.”

The McAuliffe campaign said “every year McAuliffe was in office, Virginia ranked as the safest large state in the country.” His spokesman, Renzo Olivari, called Youngkin’s claims “sad, baseless attacks.” (The campaign also contended that 2014 year-end figures should be used as the baseline, but we disagree, as that would lop off McAuliffe’s first year in office.)

“In 2017, the final year of McAuliffe’s gubernatorial term, Virginia was the fourth safest state in the country in terms of violent crime,” a McAuliffe campaign spokesman said. “This was an increase from 2014, the first year of McAuliffe’s term, when Virginia was the fifth safest state for violent crime. ... Further, Virginia’s violent crime rate increased at a lower rate than every one of its bordering states and the nation at large.”

The Pinocchio Test

Youngkin is deploying these statistics as part of a campaign theme that McAuliffe is “too dangerous for Virginia.”

A voter who hears that “the murder rate went up 43 percent” or that “the rape rate went up every year” would take home a very different, much scarier, impression from one who hears that “Virginia was one of the safest states in the country” or “the safest large state.” Yet all of these claims are accurate when looking at the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting data.

For giving half the picture, Youngkin earns Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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