Following decades of decline, homicide rates in the United States increased in 2015 and 2016, sparking concern that America’s long trend toward safer cities had come to an end. Those fears were premature. In September, the FBI published data showing that rates of crime, violent crime, and murder dropped significantly in 2018, confirming Brennan Center predictions.
That leaves one big question: why?
On Monday, President Trump appeared before a gathering of the International Association of Chiefs of Police to claim credit on behalf of his administration. “Together,” he said, “we have taken bold action to reverse the tide of violent crime.” His theory was simple: by supporting police and prosecuting gun crimes, law and order had been restored. The speech accompanied an announcement that he would convene a commission, through executive order, to study the causes of crime.
But the truth is a lot more complex. In claiming responsibility for falling crime rates, President Trump embraced three dangerous myths about crime and policing in America.
There was no “tide of violent crime”
First and foremost, there’s no evidence that a “tide of violent crime” loomed over the nation on January 20, 2017, waiting for Trump to “reverse” it. While crime did increase somewhat in 2015 and 2016, Trump’s 2016 claim that “decades of progress” in violence reduction were being undone was simply wrong. Even after two years of increased crime, the 2016 national murder rate remained at 5.4 killings per 100,000, roughly half of its 1991 peak of 9.8.
Make no mistake: any increase in violent crime is serious, and the 2015–2016 crime spike calls for greater study. But misleading the public with overblown claims of “American carnage,” and claiming credit for stopping a crime wave that never really materialized, does nothing more than inspire overreaction. We need smart policies to reduce violence, not fear.
Police protests didn’t “embolden” people to commit crimes
Trump’s arguments for why the “tide” has since receded are equally wrong, and equally dangerous. In his speech, the president led with a claim popular with his base: during the Obama administration, he argued, “outrageous slanders on our police went unanswered and unchallenged.” In response, Trump said, “radical activists freely trafficked in violent anti-police hostility, and criminals grew only more emboldened as a result.” In other words, disrespect for police allowed violence to flourish. Because Trump restored respect for police, violence has now dropped.
Researchers call this argument the “Ferguson Effect”: protests against high-profile incidents of police misconduct, the theory goes, led to police pulling back from active patrol and an increase in crime.
But researchers have failed to uncover a link between such “de-policing” and homicide rises. Instead, the data suggests a different culprit: a crisis in police legitimacy, causing communities to disengage after witnessing unjustified police violence.
Indeed, studies reveal that the killings of unarmed civilians compromised police legitimacy, contributing in turn to the surge in homicides. They also suggest that the opioid epidemic — which raged at roughly the same time — caused an increase in homicides in Black and especially white communities. Importantly, the effect of police illegitimacy and the drug epidemic was stronger in places with high levels of structural disadvantage, like Chicago.
Have gun prosecutions surged? Does it matter?
Lastly, Trump argued that a jump in gun prosecutions has caused crime to drop. “Last year,” he said, “my administration charged the largest number of firearm defendants ever recorded in the history of our country.” This is true: prosecutions under the major federal gun statutes did peak in 2018.
But the relationship between prosecutions and crime is more complicated than President Trump let on. For one, the trend in gun prosecutions predates his administration. Gun prosecutions rose in 2015 and 2016, too — before he took office, but just as murder rates were also increasing. And while gun prosecutions dropped or held roughly stable in the years before 2015, so did the murder rate. Gun prosecutions may have some effect on crime rates, but it’s certainly not as clear-cut as Trump implies.
Facts, not wish fulfillment
Scholars continue to debate the cause of the sudden and sustained drop in violence that started in 1991. It should come as no surprise, then, that we still don’t know precisely what caused crime to briefly increase a few years ago. That question deserves careful, thoughtful research — of the kind that the president’s newly announced executive commission might deliver — not unsubstantiated claims to fit a convenient narrative.