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Takeaways from 2019 Crime Data in Major American Cities

Data shows crime continuing to decline in key cities, with isolated trouble spots.

With the end of the year approach­ing, trends in crime for 2019 are snap­ping into focus. They offer some good news, includ­ing decreases that offset a spike from 2015 and 2016 in many places. But there are also some remind­ers of the need for innov­at­ive solu­tions to urban viol­ence.

What’s past is prologue

It’s import­ant to under­stand this year’s data against the broader back­ground of crime in the United States. Between 1960 and 1980, the murder rate roughly doubled, climb­ing from 5.1 per 100,000 people to 10.2. After a short dip, murder rates reached their most recent high point in 1991, peak­ing at 9.8. This increase was not confined to just homicide: rates of crime and viol­ent crime also rose dramat­ic­ally. In some cities, the trend was even sharper, with New York City exper­i­en­cing 2,245 murders in 1990 alone, corres­pond­ing to a murder rate of more than 30 per 100,000. 

Then some­thing incred­ible happened. Crime dropped — and kept on drop­ping.

By 2014, the national murder rate had fallen to 4.4 per 100,000. Big cities largely shared in the decline. That year, New York City’s murder rate had fallen by nearly 90 percent from its peak. Research­ers every­where, includ­ing at the Bren­nan Center, have stud­ied this “great crime decline.”

This broader trend toward greater safety appeared to stall and reverse in 2015 and 2016. The national murder rate climbed to 5.4 in 2016 — a far cry from 1990 levels, but disturb­ing, nonethe­less. Concern focused on a few big cities, espe­cially Chicago, which had 765 murders in 2016, up from 478 the year before. Thank­fully, though, the new crime wave that some warned was just over the hori­zon never mater­i­al­ized. Viol­ent crime appeared to stabil­ize in 2017 and then dropped sharply in 2018.

So, what happened this year?

We’ve iden­ti­fied several key trends among major cities. Note that for some cities, data is avail­able through Novem­ber; other cities’ data is more recent or older. This vari­ation is due to local report­ing prac­tices, and we provide the most recent data avail­able.

Murders decline in Chicago, again

First and fore­most, crime contin­ues to drop in Chicago.

Though it hasn’t quite returned to 2014 levels, it’s making steady progress. Compared to late Novem­ber of last year, repor­ted crimes are down by 10 percent. That decrease is driven, in part, by signi­fic­ant declines in prop­erty crime. But declines in viol­ent crimes this past year were equally signi­fic­ant, fall­ing by over 11 percent.

Robber­ies and aggrav­ated assaults are down by 18 percent and 5 percent, respect­ively. And import­antly, homicides — which spiked so sharply earlier between 2015 and 2016 — are down again by about 13 percent, drop­ping to 452 killings compared to 517 at the same time last year. Apply­ing the fore­cast­ing meth­od­o­logy used in previ­ous Bren­nan Center analyses, Chicago is on track to record fewer than 500 homicides this year — a 35 percent decrease from 2016.

It’s not all good news. The one excep­tion to this decline in viol­ent crime is repor­ted rape, which was up by around 1 percent. Further­more, even if Chicago returned to its 2014 murder rate, the city’s murder rate would still be three times higher than the national rate. Even as crime drops in the city, that level of viol­ence demands atten­tion from poli­cy­makers.

Continu­ing low viol­ent crime rates in New York City and San Fran­cisco

Of the drops in crime seen nation­wide in the last quarter-century, New York City saw some of the sharpest compared to other cities. And those public safety gains are largely hold­ing.

This year, the number of crimes and viol­ent crimes repor­ted through Decem­ber 1 is largely unchanged from the prior year, declin­ing 1.4 percent and increas­ing 1.5 percent, respect­ively. While homicides are up around 8 percent, it’s import­ant to remem­ber how low New York City’s murder rate is to begin with — last year, it was 30 percent below the national murder rate — and avoid over­re­ac­tion to relat­ively small year-to-year fluc­tu­ations. New York has seen single-year increases before — in 2015, for example — and contin­ues to be an extraordin­ar­ily safe major city.

The same is true of San Fran­cisco. The data through Octo­ber shows signi­fic­ant declines in the number of homicides (down around 18 percent) and repor­ted rapes (down 14 percent) contrib­ut­ing to a roughly 7 percent decrease in viol­ent crimes repor­ted. (San Fran­cisco reports an 8 percent decline in viol­ent crime in the data we reviewed, but this accounts for a decrease in human traf­fick­ing crimes. While that decrease is good news, most cities don’t include traf­fick­ing in viol­ent crime tallies, so we exclude it here too.)

Prop­erty crimes are down 5 percent over­all, with the number of repor­ted burg­lar­ies fall­ing 16 percent. These are small declines, though, consid­er­ing San Fran­cis­co’s relat­ively high rate of prop­erty crime. In 2018, San Fran­cis­co’s prop­erty crime rate was the third highest among cities with popu­la­tions of 500,000 or more. It followed only Memphis and Albuquerque, two cities that struggle with both poverty and crimes typic­ally asso­ci­ated with poverty.

Why would a pros­per­ous city with a low rate of the seri­ous viol­ent crimes have high incid­ences of prop­erty crime?

The causes of crime are complic­ated, and there’s no single answer for why San Fran­cis­co’s prop­erty crime rate is so high. But two contrib­ut­ing factors might be inequal­ity. The economic indic­at­ors that give San Fran­cisco its repu­ta­tion as a rich city mask an import­ant real­ity: San Fran­cisco is so wealthy because its wealth­i­est citizens are very wealthy. The large paychecks for tech work­ers drive a sky-high cost of living, which in turn contrib­utes to the city’s high popu­la­tion of home­less people and may also drive theft offenses.

Slight increase in viol­ent crime in Phil­adelphia

There’s been an under­stand­able focus on Phil­adelphia after the 2017 elec­tion of its progress­ive, reform-oriented district attor­ney, Larry Krasner. He elim­in­ated cash bail for most nonvi­ol­ent offenses, required prosec­utors to explain the cost to taxpay­ers of incar­cer­a­tion when seek­ing a prison sentence, direc­ted them to seek lighter sentences gener­ally, and dropped some drug prosec­u­tions.

Of course, Krasner’s reform-minded approach has its detract­ors. Homicides in Phil­adelphia increased by more than 10 percent in 2018, prompt­ing some concern about the consequences of his reforms. But correl­a­tion does not imply caus­a­tion, and it would be a mistake to diagnose a new trend based on a single year of data, espe­cially since the city’s murder rate has been trend­ing upward since 2013, well before he took office.

This year, through Decem­ber 1, viol­ence appears to be stabil­iz­ing, with viol­ent crime rising by just 4 percent — within the realm of yearly vari­ation. That increase includes a less than 1 percent rise in the number of homicides, though; upticks in robbery and aggrav­ated assault account for most of the increase. For added context, Phil­adelphi­a’s viol­ent crime rate was 909 per 100,000 in 2018, the lowest it’s been since at least 1990. If trends continue, the viol­ent crime rate in 2019 will remain near the bottom of that trend.

Crit­ic­ally, relat­ive stabil­ity in viol­ent crime trends has occurred even as the jail popu­la­tion dropped. In Janu­ary 2017, the aver­age daily popu­la­tion was 6,807 incar­cer­ated people, and it fell to 6,409 by the time Krasner took office. As of Janu­ary 2019, the number was down to 4,699.

It’s too soon to eval­u­ate Krasner’s impact on the city, but these are import­ant data points to consider when eval­u­at­ing the effect of crim­inal justice reform policies.

Crime, immig­ra­tion, and the border: contin­ued safety in El Paso  

Pres­id­ent Trump frequently argues that the border and border cities are extremely danger­ous places — and that cities like El Paso, Texas, are kept safe only by draconian immig­ra­tion policies, phys­ical walls, or both. But it’s not true. For one, research suggests that undoc­u­mented immig­rants are less likely to commit viol­ent crimes than U.S. citizens.

El Paso’s exper­i­ence is a case in point. This year, it remains one of the safest cities in the United States. In 2018, of the 50 largest cities in Amer­ica, El Paso exper­i­enced the fourth lowest viol­ent crime rate and second lowest crime rate, trail­ing only Virginia Beach, Virginia. Through August of this year, the number of crimes and viol­ent crimes is down a little over 3 percent.

And if not for tragedy, El Paso’s viol­ent crime trends would be even more encour­aging. For the past decade, the city saw between 10 and 23 homicides per year. Last year ended with 23. Prior to August, the city had recor­ded just 10. Then, 22 people were killed in a massacre perpet­rated by a white suprem­acist.

Even with these tragic murders, El Paso is again on track for a very low number of homicides for a city its size. But it’s telling, and tragic, that one person carry­ing a single assault rifle can double a major city’s murder count in a hate-filled attack.

An urgent need for solu­tions to urban viol­ence in Baltimore

Lastly, we turn to another place where crime and viol­ence spiked in 2015: Baltimore. This year, Baltimore’s story contin­ues to be a mixed one. The total number of crimes repor­ted in the city fell by almost 6 percent compared to 2018 (through the last week of Novem­ber), with viol­ent crime fall­ing by about 2.5 percent. Robbery, burg­lary, theft, and auto theft decreased modestly, while repor­ted rape fell dramat­ic­ally — with law enforce­ment docu­ment­ing nearly 26 percent fewer offenses.

Unfor­tu­nately, even as the number of other viol­ent crimes dropped, Baltimore’s murder total rose. Through Novem­ber, there were 313 homicides repor­ted — an increase of 31 from the same time in 2018. This increase could offset the progress the city made last year, when the city’s homicide total dropped by roughly 10 percent, from 342 to 309. This will do little for the city’s repu­ta­tion for viol­ence. Among 24 simil­arly sized cities, just two saw higher viol­ent crimes rates than Baltimore in 2018: Detroit and Memphis.

Perhaps even more so than other cities, there is no single explan­a­tion for Baltimore’s recent exper­i­ence with crime. Corrup­tion, poverty, and an almost complete break­down in community-police rela­tions all offer some explan­a­tion. Simil­arly, no single solu­tion will bring justice or safety to its resid­ents.

Build­ing on successes and focus­ing on chal­lenges

It’s too soon to draw national conclu­sions, which would also have to be based on a review of many addi­tional cities and areas, but the declines in Chicago espe­cially point in a posit­ive direc­tion. 

As the year draws to a close, the data points toward signi­fic­ant public safety gains in some major cities and stabil­iz­a­tion in others. The few trouble spots also indic­ate the need for targeted, smart solu­tions to urban viol­ence.