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Analysis

Crime Is Down. Does President Trump Deserve Credit?

In claiming responsibility for lower crime rates, President Trump latches on to dangerous misconceptions about violence and policing.

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.