Trials and Error

How to Stop the Panic Over Violent Crime

President Trump and Jeff Sessions perversely misrepresent America’s crime data. Here’s a smarter way to read it.

The president doesn’t want to save us from American carnage.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images and Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters.

Donald Trump wants to save us from violent crime. From promising to “liberate our communities” from cartel violence, to vowing to “send in the feds” to crack down on homicide rates in Chicago, to repeatedly (and incorrectly) claiming the murder rate in the U.S. is the highest it’s been in 47 years, the president—with Attorney General Jeff Sessions at his side—has vowed to put an end to “American carnage.”

The trouble with Trump’s posturing is that there is no national crime wave. This week’s data on projected crime rates for 2017 from the Brennan Center for Justice, which anticipates a slight decrease in overall and violent crime rates in 30 major cities, is a good reminder that it’s essential to take the long view when it comes to crime statistics. Using one or two years of data to make policy changes, claim victory, or incite anxiety in a frightened public doesn’t make sense—especially when overall crime rates remain at historic lows.

The panic over rising crime didn’t come out of thin air. In 2015 and 2016, violent crime rates, specifically murder rates, did rise slightly overall. According to data from 30 major cities analyzed by the Brennan Center for Justice, that rise can be attributed to upticks in violent crime in a handful of major cities, such as Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington. Naturally, those details—that the stats focused on 30 major metropolitan areas and that the increase only reflected an increase in a few of those—were set aside by Trump and much of the media in favor of alarmist headlines. That makes sense: A Trump campaign grounded in the reality that crime has been steadily falling for decades would have been far less compelling.

The same should be noted when considering the latest numbers from the Brennan Center. The organization predicts a 2.5 percent drop in the murder rate by the end of 2017 driven largely by declines in Houston, New York, and Detroit. Chicago, too, is forecasted to see its murder decline by 2.4 percent. The overall crime and violent crime rates are also likely to fall, per the Brennan Center’s analysis. These numbers, considered by themselves, seem like cause for celebration.

But the fluctuations in crime rates—and the variables that may or may not cause them—are notoriously fickle, and a year’s worth of data isn’t very instructive. Researchers and statisticians have struggled to agree on what’s caused the decline in crime rates that began in the early 1990s. Theories abound. It’s employment rates. It’s economic inequality. It’s lead abatement policies or divorce rates or mass incarceration. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that there is no single variable we can point to: that myriad factors contribute to the ebb and flow of crime.

Further, crime rates are an inherently local issue. A focus on national trends risks overlooking the unique issues that influence crime in each city and county. Further, the Brennan Center’s data is again focused on just 30 major cities. When analyzing the crime rise between 2015 and 2016, Fordham law professor and statistician John Pfaff found that just 44 percent of the rise in murder rates over this time could be attributed to cities with populations larger than 250,000. In other words, it’s not possible to illustrate the entire picture of violent crime in the U.S. with an analysis that excludes smaller cities. It’s also worth noting that year-to-date data projections like the Brennan Center’s latest don’t always hold up when the end of the year rolls around.

In July, Sessions stood before a room of prosecutors at the summer meeting of the National District Attorneys Association and gave a speech that relied heavily on sweeping declarations about national trends. The rise in violent crime, he said, is “not a blip, not an aberration. Capitulating to this trend is not an option for America, [and] it’s not an option for us.” This wasn’t the first time Sessions had made ominous warnings about the creeping violent crime rate, and it wouldn’t be the last. In late August, he cautioned the National Fraternal Order of Police that “violent crime is back with a vengeance.”

These kinds of grandiose warnings led to the creation of a violent crime task force and continue to fuel the disproven theory that immigrants commit more crime than U.S.-born citizens. It’s possible that Sessions and Trump don’t understand that the administration’s war on violent crime is both unnecessary and shortsighted. It seems more likely that the administration knows it doesn’t need to ride in on its law-and-order horse and save us. Trump and Sessions misrepresent what crime stats say and what they mean because it serves their agenda to do so. The president doesn’t want to save us from American carnage. He wants us to wallow in it.