A year-end analysis released Tuesday by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice found that 2016’s crime rates have actually been near an all-time low. The final figures are expected to closely resemble last year’s numbers, with an overall increase of just 0.3 percent.
The report does point out that “the 2016 murder rate is projected to be 14 percent higher than last year in the 30 largest cities.” And that’s certainly not good. But that 14 percent number doesn’t tell the whole story.
“The violent crime rate is projected to increase slightly, by 3.3 percent, driven by increases in Chicago (17.7 percent increase) and Charlotte (13.4 percent increase),” the report says. “This is less than the 5.5 percent increase initially projected in the September report. Violent crime still remains near the bottom of the nation’s 30-year downward trend.”
A preliminary version of the report from September noted that “these findings undercut media reports referring to crime as ‘out of control,’ or heralding a new nationwide crime wave.”
Trump, who billed himself as the “law and order candidate” during his campaign, has repeatedly described the U.S. as a violent, lawless country, suggesting that it is teeming with killers, terrorists and Mexican rapists. He often makes false claims about the murder rate.
The Brennan Center’s preliminary analysis in September appeared just days after a New York Times report showing that murder rates increased in 25 of the nation’s 100 largest cities last year. This would seem to fly in the face of the idea that crime is not surging, but both the Brennan Center and the Times analysis note that there’s a lot of nuance to crime statistics ― especially homicide rates. Even localized increases, like the ones described in the Times report, don’t necessarily mean there’s a major uptick in crime nationwide.
Being harsher on crime can cause complaints of police harassment to rise. Poor and black people are disproportionately arrested and tend to serve extended sentences for minor offenses. And in any case, locking more people up does not cause crime rates to drop.
But there’s an audience for Trump’s claims, however misleading they might be. Sixty-one percent of Americans believe crime has increased nationwide in the past decade, according to an August poll conducted by The Huffington Post and YouGov. In reality, it hasn’t.
Much of the belief that crime is surging probably comes from the ubiquity of mass media and social media in our lives ― something that’s very different now than it was a decade ago. Individual crimes sometimes receive tremendous attention in mass and social media, and that in turn can make America seem like a more dangerous and violent place than it really is.
There’s also the idea of a so-called “Ferguson effect” ― the theory that crime is up in some places because cops are hesitant to do their jobs now that police brutality has come under national scrutiny.
There’s not much reason to believe the “Ferguson effect” is real. And the Brennan Center found no uniform trend toward increases in crime. In fact, its researchers think some cities where crime rose in 2015 may have actually become safer in 2016.
Baltimore and Washington, two cities where a jump in homicides caused the national murder rate to rise in 2015, are projected to see murder rates decrease by 6 percent and 18.6 percent, respectively.
Some cities, like San Diego, will see an increased murder rate while overall crime drops, the Brennan Center predicts. Others, like Charlotte, North Carolina, will see an increase in overall crime while murder rates remain stable.
And like last year, some cities will most likely experience elevated rates of violent crime that will, in turn, bring averages up. For example, that 14 percent increase in the murder rate in the 30 largest cities? It wasn’t a uniform rise. Chicago accounted for a big percentage of it.
Local increases like these don’t really offer evidence of a national crime wave, since there may be site-specific factors causing crime to surge in certain cities ― things like poverty, unemployment and segregated neighborhoods.
“Warnings of a coming crime wave may be provocative,” the Brennan Center noted in September. “But they are not supported by the evidence.”
Read the updated report below:
This article has been updated with the final year-end numbers from the Brennan Center. This article was updated in September with new information provided by the Brennan Center that corrected errors in their initial preliminary analysis. The first published draft of the preliminary report misstated the projected murder rates for San Jose, Baltimore and Washington.