Should the Media Downplay the New Murder Spike?

Depending on your politics, the FBI’s new stats can look scary or meaningless. Here’s a more honest reading.

Homicides increased 10.8 percent from 2014 to 2015. Above, Chicago police officers investigate a crime scene in July 2015.

Jim Young/Reuters

On Monday, the FBI released crime statistics for 2015. The results were not unexpected but newsworthy nonetheless: In the context of a presidential campaign in which one candidate has painted a picture of a nation being torn apart by violence and positioned himself as a champion of “law and order,” any new data on crime rates—what’s actually going on, underneath all the rhetoric—is valuable.

The FBI’s numbers do not prove Donald Trump right. But they also resist easy interpretation, inspiring a rather bitter tug of war between people with differing opinions about how the data should be understood. In covering the new stats, some news outlets led with the FBI’s finding that the total number of murders in America went up 10.8 percent last year—from a little over 14,000 killings in 2014 to just under 15,700 in 2015. Others sought to put that change in historical context, noting that the murder spike had followed a long, steep decline in violent crime that began more than 20 years ago.

Where different people placed the emphasis depended on their beliefs about crime and punishment. Those who think scary year-on-year crime statistics drum up misplaced support for overly aggressive law enforcement policies played down the murder surge. (In the Huffington Post, Ryan Reilly published a pointed story under the headline “2015 Was One of the Safest Years in The Past 2 Decades, According to FBI Crime Stats” and described the national homicide rate as having grown only “slightly.”) Those who see folly in focusing on good news when thousands of people are being killed highlighted all the ways in which crime has gotten worse. (Peter Moskos, a sociologist and ex-cop from Baltimore, wrote on his blog that while “the accepted liberal reaction to this increase seems to be ‘it’s not a big deal’ and ‘Don’t freak out’ … What matters, or at least should matter, is that more American are being murdered.”)

The disagreement here is not trivial or cosmetic. But it conceals what should be an obvious truth. No, there is no “nationwide crime wave,” in the sense that most Americans, in most parts of the country, really are exposed to far less violent crime in 2016 than they have been in decades. But the FBI report suggests something else, too: In a whole bunch of places across the country—including sections of Baltimore; Chicago; St. Louis; Washington, D.C.; and Milwaukee—life has recently become much more dangerous.

There has been a consistent attempt on the left this year to refute any suggestion that crime is going up, provoked by conservatives like Heather Mac Donald, who have argued that activism around police killings has sparked a new era of lawlessness and violence. This is the theory known as “the Ferguson Effect,” which has become a kind of toxic shorthand for saying advocates of police reform have blood on their hands. Unfortunately, the imperative to push back against that theory has frequently taken the form of denial—causing well-meaning, anti–mass incarceration liberals to play down the bloodshed in cities like Baltimore (which had its highest murder rate in history last year) and Chicago (where more than 2,900 people were shot) and question the significance of short-term fluctuations in homicide rates. The Brennan Center for Justice, a left-leaning think tank and advocacy organization, has exemplified this strategy, publishing reports that indicate violent crime is rising sharply in some cities but framing its results as evidence that crime is “remaining at an all-time low.”

There are political reasons for engaging in that kind of jiujitsu: Crime makes people afraid, and when they hear crime is going up, they start to think the justice system should be more punitive, not less. That makes them think maybe they should vote for someone like Donald Trump—a guy who is going to have a field day with this new FBI report and will use the fact that 29 big cities saw murders go up by double digits last year as an argument for, say, introducing stop-and-frisk all over the country.

Preventing Trump from getting new ammunition for his campaign cannot and should not be the concern of a journalist, even when you work at a place, like Slate, that doesn’t subscribe to the dumb ideals of false objectivity. Nevertheless, there are defensible journalistic reasons for keeping that 10.8 percent murder spike out of our headlines: For instance, it’s true that the spike doesn’t seem very significant when you zoom out and look at the past 50 years. It is also true that at this point, no one knows for sure if the recent increase in violent crime will turn out to be the beginning of a serious trend. But more importantly, we know that most Americans have profound misconceptions about crime: In a recent Huffington Post poll, 61 percent of respondents said they believe, incorrectly, that crime has gone up over the past 10 years, while only 15 percent knew the truth. In this light, it’s a service to readers to do what the Huffington Post’s Reilly did with his FBI story: Foreground the long-term crime decline, and remind people that most Americans are living through a period of unprecedented safety.

And yet, a 10.8 percent nationwide increase in homicides is a really large increase in homicides. It translates to about 1,500 more people being killed in 2015 than in 2014, and it demands to be examined. Burying that data just because you don’t want to embolden people who disagree with you about the Ferguson Effect or mass incarceration minimizes all those untimely deaths. It is an insult to the dead and all their loved ones to argue, as Michelle Mark does in Business Insider, that “overreacting to the rising US crime rate could be more dangerous than the violent crime itself.”  

It’s easy enough for those of us who live in crime-free neighborhoods to say people shouldn’t make a big deal out of murder spikes in a handful of cities, when the overall crime rate in the country has not meaningfully changed. But those are important cities, and millions of people live in them. Isn’t saying the murder spike “only” affects Baltimore and Chicago sort of like saying you “only” have cancer in your lungs? As Moskos writes on his blog, “Sure, if we remove all the places where crime is up, crime wouldn’t be up.”

There’s also the fact that more than half of the people who were murdered last year were black, and as the Guardian’s Lois Beckett, Aliza Aufrichtig, and Kenan Davis point out, last year’s uptick in violent crime “was driven by an increase in the murders of black men.” It is ironic that in 2016, left-leaning people feel compelled to soft-pedal the suffering of minorities for the sake of a broader principle intended to help minorities. And it is bewildering that reporters like Beckett, who has done careful and insightful work on urban gun violence, are shamed as “fearmongering” for pointing out that not everything everywhere is going great.

So where does this leave us? Having pulled my hair out trying and failing to write up a straightforward, unbiased, and informative news post on Monday’s FBI numbers, I wonder if it’s possible that looking at national-level crime data is a mistake, full-stop—that if we read the FBI report as presenting a picture of what the United States as a whole is going through, we obscure more information than we learn. Because every city that’s battling extreme violence has a different political reality, a different history, and different forces fueling the problem, and it stands to reason that they’re not all calling out for the same fix. As with many aspects of the criminal justice system, the relevant details are local. So just as it’s wrong to downplay the murders taking place in America’s most dangerous neighborhoods, it’s also wrong to regard those complicated, independent crises as part of some deeper problem that “the country” is going through.

At the debate on Monday, Trump repeated a dramatic line he has used before: “We need law and order. If we don’t have it, we’re not going to have a country.” The truth is we never did.