Much ado about nothing? The phantom U.S. crime wave

The Federal Bureau of Investigation released its much anticipated annual crime report this week, which within hours became fodder for both candidates in the first presidential debate. While perception matters, especially in an election year, perception does not create reality - facts do. So what are the facts?

It's true that, generally speaking, violent crime in the United States rose in 2015; it also appears this unfortunate trend will continue this year. As of Sept. 29, when I started to write this post, there had been 3,233 shooting victims in Chicago alone since the start of 2016. A day later, the number had increased by 12 more. What makes this even more horrifying is that there were only 2,988 shooting victims in the Windy City in all of 2015.

The FBI report echoed these statistics on a national level, showing a 10.8 percent increase in murder and an almost 4 percent increase in rape, robbery and non-negligent manslaughter from 2014 to 2015. Viewed in a vacuum, it'd be easy to describe these numbers as a crime wave. But that assessment would not only be lazy, it would be wrong.

Property crimes actually fell by 2.6 percent from 2014 to 105. This is significant because property crimes outnumber violent crimes in the United States by roughly 8 to 1. Thus, overall, crime has actually decreased. Moreover, while there were increases in violent crime in 25 of the top 100 cities, more than half the overall increase came from just seven cities (in fact, largely concentrated within just a few neighborhoods of those cities) - Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville and Washington.

The fact is, the FBI's dataset shows 2015 to be the third-safest year in the United States in the past two decades. While Chicago appears to be on a record-breaking pace for violent crime this year, many of the cities that saw problems last year are now seeing double-digit decreases, notably Baltimore and D.C.

In the end, public officials, especially the two major presidential candidates, should avoid making policy statements through a myopic lens. Overreaction to minor stimuli (local crime statistics in a few big-city neighborhoods) do not provide a sound basis on which to set policy. If the Terri Schiavo brouhaha taught us anything, it should be to guard against knee-jerk responses to social agitation over relatively local distractions, however tragic.

Is the increase of a few violent crime categories in a few neighborhoods of a few cities tragic? Yes. Is it a crime wave? No.