Jeff Sessions is not the type of man to let a pesky little things like facts get in the way of his demagoguery. He’s going to make people terrified of a major surge in violent crime even if he has to invent numbers and use misleading statistics to do it, as he did in a speech in Portland recently that was fact-checked by a local newspaper.
“After decreasing for over 20 years because of the hard but necessary work our country started in the 1980s, violent crime is back. The murder rate surged nearly 11 percent nationwide in 2015—the largest increase since 1968.”
What Sessions gets right: The 2015 jump from 14,164 to 15,696 murders nationwide is the largest increase since 1968. But even with that one-year spike, the 2015 murder rate is still far below the highest point in recent history of 24,703 murders in 1991. As murder numbers get smaller and smaller, any increase looks larger when viewed as a percentage. America’s murder rate is way down from the high point in the early 1990s, and one bump in 2015 doesn’t show a reversal in crime trends.
“Between 2013 and 2015, [Portland] saw an increase in homicides of more than 140 percent.”
Not only is Sessions’ math wrong—the murder rate actually increased by about 112 percent between 2013 and 2015—but Portland’s murder rate is also so low that any increase at all looks huge when expressed as a statistic. 2013 happened to be the year with the lowest murder rate in at least the past six years, with just 16 people killed. 2015 also happened to be the deadliest of those six years, but the city still saw only 34 murders.
This is another way to lie with statistics, by focusing on small numbers and using percentage and by choosing your starting point to show the largest possible increase or decrease to exaggerate the effect. This is what demagogues do, selectively pick out things that make you fearful because fear is a powerful motivator. And that fear is almost always a means of making you support more authoritarian policies.