Can we talk about Donald Trump’s acceptance speech last week? I’ve been ruminating and ruminating on it and it’s not getting any better. Trump focused on increases in crime and the violent threat posed by illegal immigration. Except that none of that is real. Violent crime has been declining for decades, police are killed on the beat far less frequently than they used to be, and undocumented immigrants are actually less likely to commit crime than American citizens. Trump’s acceptance speech was all smoke and mirrors.
To put it simply Donald Trump lying through his teeth in an attempt to scare the American people into believing that they live in dangerous times when they don’t. Why would he do this? To get votes. Trump made no secret that he riffed off Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential nomination acceptance speech, down to his adoption of Nixon’s appeal to “law and order.” Nixon won—twice. Trump is clearly hoping to replicate this success. But you can’t just rip a campaign approach out of another era and assume conditions are the same just because you feel like it must be true. (This is without even getting into the racist context of Nixon’s campaign and slogan.)
Let’s start with the homicide rate, shall we?
In each of these cities, the murder rate peaked in the early 1990s and has been falling since. But wait—the last of these graphs stops in 2015, and note that each line ticks up slightly. It turns out that the murder rate in major U.S. cities was indeed up in 2015. Some analysts have dubbed this the “Ferguson effect.” The claim is that police are going easy for fear of being accused of police brutality, and that as a result, criminals are running rampant. These claims do not appear to be borne out in the evidence (as we’ll see in a moment), but it is true that the overall homicide rate was up in 2015, at least in major cities (national data has yet to be released).
Here is an excerpt from Trump’s speech:
Homicides last year increased by 17% in America’s fifty largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60% in nearby Baltimore.
In the President’s hometown of Chicago, more than 2,000 have been the victims of shootings this year alone. And more than 3,600 have been killed in the Chicago area since he took office.
First, let’s talk about Baltimore. For the five years from 2010 through 2014, Baltimore averaged 216 homicides per year. In 2015, there were 344 homicides, which was indeed an increase of nearly 60%. This year there have been 169 homicides so far. Last year at this time, there had been 183 homicides. In other words, the homicide rate is currently down 8% compared to 2015—but don’t expect Trump to mention that! Don’t get me wrong, the rate is still way too high and is on track to top 300 again. It’s worth remembering, though, that the homicide rate in 2006 and 2007, before Obama took office, were 276 and 282. The homicide numbers from 2010 to 2014 represented a historic low. What I hope is clear by now, though, is that you can’t tell a complicated story like Baltimore with a single statistic.
What about Washington, D.C.? Our nation’s capitol saw 105 homicides in 2014 and 162 homicides in 2015, a 54% increase. In 2016, the city has seen 70 homicides thus far, compared to 81 at this time last year. This is a 14% decrease. If this rate holds, D.C. can be expected to have a total homicide count of 139 by the end of the year. While still substantially higher than the 2014 total, this number is nonetheless lower than the 2015 total. In other words, D.C. is on track to have a lower homicide rate in 2016 than in 2015, something Trump definitely left out of his speech. Further, even D.C.’s 162 total homicide number for 2015 is far lower than the homicide numbers from 2008 and before, prior to Obama’s election, when annual totals tended to hover around 180 homicides per year.
Next let’s talk about Chicago. The 2015 murder rate there was up in 2015 compared to 2013 and 2014, but was actually lower than it was in 2012. In 2016, though, the murder rate in Chicago has increased more markedly. The number of homicides in Chicago so far this year already stands at over 370 in a city that typically doesn’t top 500 homicides in a year. Last year at this time the number of homicides stood at around 270, which means that to date there has been a roughly 37% increase in the city’s homicide rate. If this rate keeps up, we may be looking at a total of as many as 670 homicides by the end of the year, a number not seen in that city since the late 1990s. There are reasons to think that what is going on in Chicago may be unique to Chicago, though, and we’ll come back to the city in just a minute.
Let’s pause for a moment to talk about other cities. New York City, for instance:
New York City saw a significant drop in major crimes in the first quarter of 2016 with the fewest murders and shootings in its recorded history, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced during a Monday press conference.
. . .
In the first three months of the year, New York City saw a 21 percent drop in murders compared with the same period last year, a statistic de Blasio called “extraordinary.” The city also saw a 14 percent decrease in shootings compared with those months in 2015.
By now you may see what I’ve been trying to get at in throwing all these details and all this context out there. Trump is correct that the homicide rate in the nation’s 50 largest cities rose by 17% between 2014 and 2015. He does not, however, mention that numerous cities are reporting lower murder rates in 2016 than in 2015—in some cases historically low. When a writer for Time magazine notes that “nearly half of the cities surveyed showed increases in homicides in the first quarter of this year compared with 2015,” the natural conclusion is that over half have reported decreases. Trump also does not mention that the 2014 U.S. homicide rate was a historic all-time low not seen since—well, I’m not actually sure when, because the stats I’m looking at only go back to 1960.
Let’s offer some context here. The murder rate in the United States hit 10.2 in 1980. The murder rate was 4.5 in 2014. The FBI has yet to release its crime statistics for 2015 (these are typically released in September), but even if the 17% increase in homicides applies across the board and not only to major cities (which is absolutely not a given), we would be looking at a murder rate of 5.3 for 2015. You want some context on that? The murder rate was 5.4% in 2008, the year Obama ran for president, and at the time, that was the lowest the murder rate had been for over four decades. We have enjoyed historically unprecedented low homicide rates since Obama took office—literally. The homicide rate for 2015 is only high when compared to Obama’s first term and a half, and is actually in line with the statistics of the Bush era. At this point, there is absolutely no reason to assume that the homicide rate in 2016 will be any higher than the 2015 rate.
Am I happy about our current homicide rates? No. Many other developed countries have far lower homicide rates. Are we in the midst of a cataclysmic crime wave? No, we are not. Officials have warned against calling the overall uptick in urban murders last year a trend, given that cities appear to be split, some showing increases and others decreases. A trend, some experts have pointed out, would be more across the board. Further, late last year researchers from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law looked through statistics spanning from January 1st to October first of that year, and found that while murder rates in the nation’s 30 largest city were up by 11% compared to the previous year, overall crime rates (which combine murder with assault, burglary, etc.) were actually down slightly in those same cities. Researchers also found that while murder rates were up in 14 cities, they were down in another 11 other cities (which, again, does not speak to a trend). According to an article about the findings:
“Averaged across the cities, we find that while Americans in urban areas have experienced more murders this year than last year, they are safer than they were five years ago and much safer than they were 25 years ago,” the authors said.
This brings us to another point—Trump is speaking to predominantly white crowds, but it is African Americans who suffer disproportionately from murder and gun violence. Take a look at this:
From 2005 to 2015, the city went from 17.3 homicides per 100,000 residents to a rate of about 18.8, according to a report from the Injury Prevention and Research Center at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
But the report held particularly troubling news for African-Americans. The rate for blacks in Chicago jumped from 36.1 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2005 to 46.5 a decade later.
. . .
The study found that homicide rates for white people have decreased in the past decade, from 4.4 homicides per 100,000 in 2005 to 2.7 in 2015.
In other words, if you are white and you live in Chicago, you were far safer even in 2015 with its elevated murder rate than you were in 2005. African Americans, though? Not so much. The violence in Chicago is mostly limited to specific neighborhoods on the south and west sides of the city, which are predominantly African American in population, and officials there believe that the increased murder rate is related to a recent splintering of established gangs, leaving smaller groups fighting over turf. Trump’s speeches, though, are not aimed at African Americans. They’re aimed at his predominantly white base—the very people who are most insulated from the threat posed by an increased murder rate.
But let’s not just talk about homicides. Let’s talk about all crime.
The above image is important, I think, because it suggests that American perceptions of crime rates are seriously out of step with our actual crime rates, and have been for some time. But that graph stops at 2013. What happened in 2014? The violent victimization rate fell from 23.2 per 1,000 to 20.1 per 1,000, close to the 2010 low of 19.3 per 1,000. What about 2015? Did crime (violent or otherwise) increase in 2015? We won’t have official 2015 data until this fall, so it’s hard to say. However, remember that researchers looking at crime data from the 30 largest U.S. cities spanning the months January through September of 2015 found that overall crime rates were actually slightly down, even as the murder rate was up by 11% compared to the same period the previous year, and that the homicide data we have is only from major cities, and not nationwide.
The nationwide decrease in violent crime over the past two+ decades is striking.
By halfway through the Obama administration, crime had fallen to levels so low that some commenters have declared it “a new golden age.” Criminologists have been left scratching their heads and searching for explanations. Some point to the increase in the number of people we lock up in our prisons, others to the increased accessibility of abortion, and still others to the elimination of lead paint. Whatever the cause, experts agree—something significant has happened here, leaving the U.S. the safest it has been in many decades. This isn’t to say that there isn’t still work to be done—there is—but it is to say that anyone who is running on claims that a crime wave is sweeping this nation, leaving us vulnerable and in imminent danger, is running on bullshit.
I was going to also address murders of police officers and crime rates for illegal immigrants, but this post has gotten too long already. I will hopefully be able to get to those topics in future posts. The bottom line, though, is that Trump is trying to scare people into believing that we live in a time of lawlessness and crime when in fact we live in the safest era this country has seen in many, many decades. This can perhaps be seen as a symptom of Trump’s iffy relationship with the truth. Unfortunately, though, as revealed in one of the graphs above, many American’s perception of crime does not line up with the actual incidence of crime, which may leave them open to Trump’s fallacious narrative. That does not, however, mean we can’t push back. We can and we must.