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Violent Crime Is Falling Nationwide — Here’s How We Know

Preliminary FBI data, however imperfect, confirms a sharp downward trend in crime, undercutting attempts to blame criminal justice reform for pandemic-era spikes in violence.

April 30, 2024
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Misleading statements about crime and public safety are already proliferating in this election cycle. As November draws closer, misinformation is likely to intensify. That makes it even more important to take a close look at what the best and most recent crime data tells us. One major trend is becoming clear: violent crime dropped in 2021 and 2022 — and then declined again, significantly, in 2023. We’ll have to wait until the fall for final government data to confirm this trend. Until then, here’s what we know, how we know it, and what it means — drawing on both city data and the most recent information from the FBI.

City-level data shows declines in violent crime

City-level crime reports are the best places to look for up-to-the-minute crime data. Combining enough city-level crime data can, in turn, approximate national trends. Two research teams have used this approach to give a sense of crime in 2023. Both show sharp declines in violent crime.

  • Drawing on data from 38 cities across the country, the Council on Criminal Justice reported that homicide declined by 10 percent in 2023. It also noted declines in assaults, gun assaults, burglary, and larceny, but a sharp spike in motor vehicle thefts.
  • Similarly, Jeff Asher, a researcher and expert in data on crime and public safety, studied murder data from 175 cities and found a 7 percent decline in murders through December 7, 2023, compared to 2022. These cities are from across the country and include jurisdictions led by Republicans and Democrats alike.

A murder decline of this magnitude would be historic; the sharpest one-year drop on record occurred in 1996 when the number of murders nationwide fell by a little more than 9 percent compared to 1995.

Crime trends in the largest cities tend to grab headlines and help shape our understanding of national developments. That makes careful examination of data from these cities especially important. Broadly, the news about murder trends from 2022 to 2023 is encouraging. There were 100 fewer murders in Philadelphia in 2023 compared to 2022, a decline of roughly 20 percent. In Baltimore, murders also declined by roughly 20 percent, falling below 300 for the first time since 2014. Similarly, New York City saw nearly 50 fewer homicides, a drop of roughly 11 percent.

Notable on their own, these declines also undercut politicized claims that crime is rising in “blue cities.” On the contrary, the data demonstrates that Democratic-led cities, which also happen to be some of the nation’s most populous, follow and in some cases lead the national trend toward decreasing violence.

Of course, this overall trend is not universal, and causes for concern remain. Just as all available police data points to a decline in murders, those same sources also indicate an increase in motor vehicle thefts. Some cities, like Washington, DC, also saw violence continue to surge in 2023. Last, but of vital importance, even with these declines, murder rates likely remain above 2019 levels nationally and in most cities.

Preliminary national data from the FBI confirms falling violent crime

On March 18, the FBI released preliminary quarterly crime data for 2023. Intended to supplement the FBI’s annual fall report on nationwide crime trends, these quarterly reports offer an early but incomplete look at crime data from a smaller group of police agencies than represented in final annual reports. The latest release covers more than 80 percent of the population — a very robust sample, even if there are errors in the city-level data that should be corrected before the FBI releases final year-end data in the fall.

The broad trend matches what researchers have observed in collections of city data about crime trends between 2022 and 2023. Specifically, the FBI’s report shows remarkable declines in murder (down 13.2 percent), violent crime (down 5.7 percent), and property crime (down 4.3 percent). Of the seven major offenses tracked by the FBI, the report shows an increase only in motor vehicle theft (up 10.7 percent).

Understanding common criticisms of crime data

The available data indicates that violence, especially lethal violence, dropped in 2023. Skeptics might still point to reasons to question the apparent decline in crime. For one, crime data generally includes only offenses reported to police. Could crime reporting have dropped, and crime itself remained static? One problem with this theory is immediately evident. Murder is almost always reported to the police. And it appears to have fallen at a rapid, potentially record-setting pace in 2023.

As for crimes other than murder, we’ll have to wait until fall to test the possibility of underreporting. That’s when the National Criminal Victimization Survey (NCVS), an analysis by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics that studies people’s experiences with nonlethal crime, will release its 2023 data. Unfortunately, data quality issues make it difficult to draw firm conclusions from the NCVS’s most recent releases.

Last, skeptics might point to the FBI’s recent transition to a new crime reporting system, which led to relatively few police agencies providing data for the bureau’s 2021 crime report, as another weak spot in recent crime data. But agency reporting has improved since 2021, and the FBI took other steps to ensure a more complete report in 2022. The next report, covering 2023, will likely mark another improvement.

• • •

Crime data is far from perfect. But the FBI’s data is improving in both quality and frequency of reporting, and independent research allows us to double-check the bureau’s work as that process continues. Putting the two pieces together, a clear picture is emerging, one that shows significant decreases in violent crime in recent years.

Rapidly changing crime trends underscore the value of having crime data that is timely and reliable. Policymakers and leaders in civil society should continue to work toward realizing that goal.