The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How bad is crime, anyway?

A police officer works in Manhattan. (AlessandroPhoto/iStockphoto)

I can tell you with some confidence that, as the conventional wisdom would suggest, crime is up in New York City. Compared to the same point in 2021, robberies are up 38 percent and burglary, 32 percent. Overall, violent crime is up 34 percent.

But the conventional wisdom is also that the city is plagued with shootings. As it turns out, there have been 13 percent fewer shooting incidents this year than last and 12 percent fewer people have been shot. In fact, the number of homicides in New York is down 13 percent, not up.

The situation is more complicated than it might seem. So how does that compare to the national picture? Well, it’s hard to say. New York, home to 3 percent of the country’s population, helpfully has a data portal documenting reported crimes (which, of course, is a subset of actual crimes) and putting them into context. But there is no similar real-time data nationally — or even in most places.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

Some smaller cities do track reported crimes, but often on sites like CrimeMapping.com. (Here’s recent crime in Peoria, Ill., to choose a random example.) There’s little ability to compare numbers with past figures, meaning that it’s hard to know how much crime is rising or falling.

The federal government does track crime to some extent. In June, for example, the Wall Street Journal published a report that challenged the existing conventional wisdom. Republican politicians had eagerly decried rising crime in Democratic-led cities, which is most major cities. As it turns out, crime was up significantly in rural areas, too, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At least in 2020, the most recent year for which data was available. In that same month, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system provided an update on crime during 2021, with a caveat: Too few police departments had returned data for the national figures to be reliable. Even if it had been, we’d still be dealing with data in the middle of 2022 that was at least six months out of date. Hard to draw political inferences from that.

This week, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released a different set of figures for 2021: estimates of how often people were victims of violent crime and how often those crimes were reported to police. Those numbers (which, importantly, exclude homicide) indicate that violent crime was flat in 2021 — and down in 2020.

(On the graphs below, the shaded area indicates confidence intervals. Data for 2006 was not available.)

This, of course, is not what the political dialogue would suggest. But we have other data showing how that conversation is often inaccurate.

Polling regularly shows that Americans think crime is a bigger problem nationally than it is in their own areas. A poll conducted by YouGov in August, for example, showed that Americans were nearly 40 points more likely to say violent crime was a very or somewhat serious problem in the country overall than in their own communities.

On property crime, there was much less of a divergence. Democrats were about as likely to say that property crime is at least a somewhat serious problem near them as it is nationally.

In other words, perceptions of crime as a national issue often don’t match our direct experience. This is not a new observation, certainly, but it’s an important one. Without accurate data on crime and with a predilection for seeing crime as a problem even if that’s not the case near us, it’s easy to use the issue as a political cudgel. Which, of course, often happens.

It’s also easy to breezily dismiss concerns about crime as a political ploy, which also happens. Crime — some crime, anyway — is up in New York City relative to last year. That’s a real concern to New Yorkers, even if the concern is often driven by anecdotal incidents. For longtime New Yorkers, the city still feels pretty safe, given that murder cases are down 20 percent since 2010.

Many New Yorkers, it’s safe to assume, therefore likely agree that crime locally is not as bad as crime nationally.

Loading...