No National “Crime Wave”

You may have heard Donald Trump talk about “this tremendous crime wave and killing wave that’s happening in this country.” It’s pretty clear from both statistical and anecdotal evidence that something scary’s going on in certain places, especially the perennially violent city of Baltimore. Bu is it accurate to say that the decades-long drop in crime rates has definitively been reversed?

At WaPo, former PA weekend blogger Max Ehrenfreund looks at this question, and finds little evidence of a national crime wave:

Crime appears to be on the rise in some cities, and that has cops and ordinary people concerned. Police chiefs from around the country met last month to talk about the situation. In Washington last week, there’s concern about a spike in murders. The alarming headline “Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many Cities” appeared on the front page of The New York Times on Tuesday morning.

Overall, though, things haven’t changed much from the past several years, at least judging by the number of homicides committed in major cities. While the number of homicides has increased in many big cities, the increases are moderate, not more than they were a few years ago. Meanwhile, crime has declined in other cities.

Overall, most cities are still far safer than they were two decades ago, and virtually all of that improvement has remained. That’s when the rate of violent crime began a long, steep decline nationally. Although violent crime has been decreasing overall, the general trend hasn’t been uniform. The data on crime so far this year does not show clearly that the trend toward safer streets is ending or reversing.

Even limiting one’s scope to the largest cities and focusing strictly on homicides doesn’t change the picture all that much:

The total number of homicides in 2013 and 2014 in the 10 largest cities was 1,871 and 1,889 respectively. If current trends continue, there will be 2,178 homicides in those cities this year. That number would be less than the total for 2012 (2,224) and for any previous year since at least 1985 in those 10 cities.

But there are the exceptions:

[T]here are at least three cities where the statistics so far this year are indeed deeply worrisome. If current trends continue, Baltimore, Milwaukee and St. Louis this year stand to lose more than 20 years of progress in preventing homicide.

These three, of course, are cities where police/minority relations have been strained, and protests against police behavior have drawn a lot of attention. Law-and-order types will complain that police have been discouraged from doing their jobs and killers have been “emboldened,” even as the rest of us suspect that some police are petulantly performing the law enforcement equivalent of a slow-down strike and that other causes of isolated short-term crime spikes can be identified.

Until such time as we get a better empirical handle on what’s happening out there, however, talk of a “crime” or “killing” wave other than in an entirely local sense is deeply irresponsible. Politically liberals should fight back with facts, even as we also avoid the temptation to wave away the negative trends that do exist, or the legitimate fears of people in high-crime areas.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.