Over the past few months, Donald Trump has blustered on and on about violent crime, promoting the false narrative that crime in America is vastly out of control and only getting worse. It’s another Trump lie, a misleading story he tells to stoke fear as he crowns himself the “law-and-order” candidate. Unsurprisingly, he repeated those three words over and over again last night. From the debate:
Secretary Clinton doesn't want to use a couple of words and that’s law and order. And we need law and order. If we don't have it, we’re not going to have a country. And when I look at what's going on in Charlotte, the city I love, the city where I have investments, when I look at what's going on throughout various parts of our country, whether it's...I can keep naming them all day long -- we need law and order in our country. [...]
We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-American, Hispanics, are living in hell because it's so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot. In Chicago, they’ve had thousands of shootings, thousands, since January first. Thousands of shootings. And I’m saying where is this? Is this war-torn country? What are we doing? And we had to stop the violence. We have to bring back law in order.
Spoiler alert, but Trump is lying again. Being wrong has never stopped him before, though, and fearmongering crime narratives carry a lot of weight with conservatives and liberals alike.
The bad news is that it seems like even some of the media is falling for the tale he’s spun. Yesterday, the FBI released their 2015 Crime in the United States report, which showed that certain crimes went up last year as compared to 2014. Without background or context these numbers can be warped to incite fear, and while much of yesterday’s coverage was appropriately nuanced, some of the headlines tended toward Trump-like terror.
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Trump and others, including many police, prosecutors, and other law enforcement officials, want people to think crime in America is worse than ever. But many experts, advocates, journalists, economists, statisticians, among others, are saying the opposite. Also saying the opposite? The data.
The numbers prove two realities, both undeniable. First, America is safer today than it was 10, 25, even 50 years ago. Second, even in places where crime rates are high, tough-on-crime policies simply don’t work.
Here's what you should know about Trump’s lies, the new FBI report, and crime in America today.
America is safer today than it has been for most of the last half century.
Crime is still near an all-time low.
The FBI report shows that property crime, burglary, and larceny rates were lower in 2015 than they’ve been since 1966, meaning these offenses are at an almost 50-year low. And last year’s robbery rate was the second lowest in that same time period.
Violent crime and homicide rates are both near historic lows, too—last year’s violent crime rate was the third lowest year since 1971, and the homicide rate was lower than it has been in 44 of the past 50 years.
Secretary Clinton tried to underscore these low crime rates last night, stating, “Violent crime is one half of what it was in 1991 [and] property crime is down 40 percent.” But Donald continued to cling tightly to his projection of urban America as a dystopian wasteland. “Is this [a] war-torn country?” Trump asked last night.
Don’t let him scare you—the answer is unequivocally no. Overall, America is safer now than its been in half a century.
Crime is up some places, down others.
Crime is an intensely local phenomenon, which is why presidential debates are already an inherently misleading forum for this topic. Throw in Trump and his parade of pathological falsehoods, and we have the perfect recipe for an extremely frustrating conversation about how crime in America functions.
At the Republican National Convention in July, Donald Trump stated, "Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s fifty largest cities."
This statistic sounds pretty alarming, but don't be fooled. This is yet another example of Donald Trump shamelessly misleading voters. The truth is more complicated.
First of all, the 17 percent figure itself is questionable. Donald Trump got this number from a January Washington Post article, which analyzed preliminary 2015 crime data. But more recent numbers tell a different story. Yesterday's FBI report says that the homicide rate grew around 11 percent nationally last year.
But even if we take the 17 percent figure at face value, the number itself is misleading. The Washington Post piece provided some important context that Trump conveniently forgot to mention: yes, homicide increased in 36 of those 50 cities, but it decreased in another 13. (In Mesa, Arizona, the rate stayed the same.)
And much of that increase and decrease was minimal enough that it can't even really be considered significant. In fact, earlier this month, the New York Times concluded that only 25 of America's 100 largest cities saw a significant increase in homicides. Homicide rates held steady in about 70 of the cities, and five places saw a significant drop in their murder rates.
Last night, Trump said “we have to protect our inner cities because African-American communities are being decimated by crime.” The numbers show that, in 99.9% of the country, use of the word “decimated” to describe crime’s effect on neighborhoods is inaccurate bordering on inappropriate.
In a small handful of places, though, crime is quite serious. In fact, the New York Times concluded that "half of the [2015 crime] increase came from just seven cities—Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville and Washington." Note also that there's huge variation within cities. In Chicago, where there are more shootings than anywhere else in the nation, many of the city’s neighborhoods are as safe as ever. Other communities, however, are plagued by violence.
In other words, there isn't a consistent increase in crime happening nationwide or even citywide. In fact, most of the increase is happening in just a few neighborhoods in just a few cities. And while those neighborhoods are overwhelmingly poor and minority, the idea that “African-American, Hispanics, are living in hell” because “you walk down the street, you get shot” is simply false.
We know that nuance is completely out of reach for the Republican nominee. But crime’s geographical variation is a critically important point. If Trump can’t even identify the real problem—how is he supposed to find the best solution?
Percentages can be misleading.
According to Trump, the 17 percent increase in homicide rate was "the largest increase in 25 years." But that actually depends on how we define "increase." In other words—if we take that 17 percent number to be accurate—it may be the largest percentage increase, but not nearly the largest numerical increase.
Because crime rates are already comparatively extremely low, a small increase can result in a big percentage change. Let's say, for example, that a city has eight homicides one year and twelve the next. That four-person increase equals a 50 percent increase in the murder rate.
The homicide rate rose to 4.9 homicides per every 100,000 people in 2015, from 4.5 homicides in 2014. In 1991, the rate was 9.8—literally twice as high. So, even if we take Trump's 17 percent statistic at face value, that jump in percentage doesn't mean we're seeing homicides rise nearly as much as they did 25 years ago.
“Most violent crimes are half of what they were back in 1990," says John Pfaff, Professor of Law at Fordham University. “Even if we see similar percent jumps, the actual effect is much smaller than it was before, because we are doing so well.”
Year-to-year fluctuations don’t tell us much.
If you want to look at reliable crime trends, you have to look at larger intervals of time. Pfaff and other experts emphasize caution on year-to-year data, because it doesn't actually tell us much of anything. For example, the murder rate has dropped in half since 1991, but in seven of the years between then and now, the rate actually increased from the year before.
Even so far in 2016 we already see a move in the opposite direction. "Two of the cities with the largest homicide increases in 2015 are the District of Columbia and Baltimore. Yet, already in 2016 we are seeing near double-digit decreases in both cities," said Ronald Sullivan Jr., Professor of Law & Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School. “We can't read too much into year-to-year fluctuations."
Tough-on-crime policies aren’t working.
High-crime cities are already tough-on-crime cities.
Donald Trump and other tough-on-crime advocates would have you believe that crime would be lower if only there were more police, harsher law enforcement, and tougher sentencing. But the evidence says the opposite.
This may be the most important thing to remember when pundits and politicians talk about the rise in crime. If tough-on-crime policies worked, the most overly policed cities would be the safest. Instead, many of those cities have the highest crime rates.
Chicago has more murders than any other city in America. It also has an omnipresent police force, the biggest jail in the country, and the harshest prosecutor in America. Law enforcement in Chicago has a history of being tough to the point of brutal, and Illinois prisons are the most overcrowded in the nation.
Not convinced? Look at Baltimore, where crime increased almost 60 percent in 2015. A recent DOJ report outlined just how aggressive—and corrupt—law enforcement is in that city. Houston's prosecutor is a well-known tough-on-crime advocate, and her office has the highest wrongful conviction rate in the nation. Milwaukee's police chief has made national headlines for his draconian belief that arrests and imprisonment are the answers. And in Cleveland, police shot and killed a twelve year old for playing with a toy gun.
“If we could arrest and jail our way out of [violence], the neighborhoods in Chicago and elsewhere where there had been an uptick in crime would probably be the safest in America. But that’s not what the facts tells us,” stated Miriam Krinsky, a former Assistant United States Attorney in Los Angeles. “We know that tough on crime has failed. We know that philosophies around lock them up and throw away the key have failed. We know that mandatory minimums have failed."
Even victims of violent crime know that tough-on-crime policies don't work. Dionne Wilson is a Survivor Outreach Coordinator at Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice in Oakland, California. She's also been personally affected by crime. In 2005 her husband, a police officer in San Leandro, California, was shot and killed while on duty. Wilson has undeniably been directly victimized by crime.
Yet, she believes that the tough-on-crime law enforcement approach has actually been harmful. “This failed system is diverting resources away from programs and services that actually decrease recidivism and make communities safer," she says. It’s definitely time to leave the tough on crime rhetoric behind and invest in strategies that are proven to keep our communities safe.”
The most dangerous neighborhoods have been abandoned by local leadership.
Once again, crime varies not only from city to city but from neighborhood to neighborhood. In Chicago, places like Harrison and Englewood alone are responsible for one fifth of the city’s homicides.
These neighborhoods don't lack law enforcement presence. They do, however, lack opportunity. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other local leaders only hurt these communities more when he recently closed over fifty schools, or when Illinois made drastic cuts to mental health services. As Wilson stated, “[T]he communities most likely hit by violent crime are also the ones with the least services,” says Wilson.
"[The] greatest issue related to tackling crime in this country is poverty," stated Michael McBride, a pastor at the Way Christian Center in Berkeley, California, and an activist and leader with Pico National Network. "[Violence] is largely a result of political decisions that create disinvestments in our communities that last and span generations."
Wilson and McBride are right. High-crime neighborhoods tend to be high poverty neighborhoods. These are communities with high unemployment rates and below average schools.
"Whether we are talking about Milwaukee, Oakland, St. Louis, Chicago, or Charlotte[…] in each of these cities, public officials disinvest in our communities, they close public schools, the build more jails, they cut services to mental health and physical health, and feed the incarceration system that criminalizes our community.”
Trump’s rhetoric is racist.
America's criminal justice system is disproportionately minority, and black men especially suffer when tough-on-crime policies are implemented. Donald Trump, the most openly racist presidential nominee in generations, has a long history of advocating for explicitly racist policies. He's called for deportation of Mexican immigrants, whom he's characterized as murderers and rapists. He's demanded registration, deportation, and prohibition of Muslims, all of whom Trump seems to think are plotting terrorist attacks. And recently he's been advocating a nationwide stop-and-frisk policy.
Last night, he called for stop-and-frisk again, stating that the policy “worked very well in New York.” This, of course, is false. In 2012, 53 percent of those who were stopped were black, even though black people make up only 25 percent of the city’s population. Of those who were stopped, 89 percent were totally innocent, and only 2 percent were in possession of a weapon. Stop-and-frisk was a racist and unsuccessful policing practice that further destroyed the already fraught relationship between minorities and the NYPD. Not to mention that the policy has been ruled unconstitutional, despite Trump’s assertions to the contrary.
Whether or not it works is not the point. Trump’s calls for stop-and-frisk are just more evidence of dog whistling. He’s framing poor black people, especially men, as inherently dangerous criminals. He’s telling America that black people are so violent that spotting them should be grounds enough for searching them. The small government party’s nominee is actually saying that the federal government should have the right to violate the civil liberties of minorities whenever they please.
To justify this policy, Trump and others are asserting that crime has risen because of completely invented phenomena, such as the Ferguson Effect. But the idea has already been debunked by experts, and those who continue to treat it as real are using thinly veiled racism to promote harmful policy. "If you’re going to say that Black and brown men and women who protest the police are the reason why crime is having an uptick, we want to say that is outright racist, and you are playing the Willie Horton card, the Southern Strategy card if you will," says McBride. "I believe we don’t need more unconstitutional policing to secure safety and security in our communities.”
If you listen to Trump, Obama has turned America into a dangerous jungle of crime and murder. But that’s a racist, convenient lie. The truth is that America under Obama is safer than under any other president in fifty years. In 2015, America was safer than any year of George W. Bush's, Bill Clinton's, George H.W. Bush's or Ronald Reagan's presidency.
Last night I predicted that “during the debate Donald Trump is going to try to spin [the newly released FBI] stats to make America look like a crime-infested war zone.” I was right. But we can’t let Trump sell us this lie.
We can’t forget that crime in America is at near historic lows. And we can’t forget that it is America’s police and prosecutors who have created the bloated, punitive, and racist incarceration system that currently exists.
Ed: This piece has been updated to reflect statements made during last night’s debate.