Cross-posted on U.S. News & World Report.
Headlining Thursday night's Republican convention, Donald Trump said, "These are the facts. Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration's rollback of criminal enforcement." Earlier this week, Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke and GOP Rep. Mike McCaul made similar points. Polls show that many Americans are starting to share their concerns.
But here's the surprising truth: There is little evidence that crime is "out of control." Crime rates remain at or near historic lows, and most Americans are safer walking down a street today than 30 years ago. That makes it all the more important that we take this chance to dispel fear, and confront the real problems in our criminal justice system.
Look at the evening news, and it's easy to see why the perception of crime so rarely alignswith the reality. The tragic deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and police officers in Dallas and Baton Rogue have ripped through the nation, dividing us further in this tense election year. But they have also caused the dangerous myth about rising crime to resurface.
The data tell a different story. Violent crime is half of what it was in 1991, having fallen especially dramatically in rural areas. Property crime is down 43 percent. There have been ups and downs over the past few decades, but since 1990, crime has fallen by 66 percent in major cities.
That being said, a 2015 Brennan Center study did find some concerning facts – a 3.1 percent increase in violent crime, and a 13.2 percent increase in murder in the cities we studied. This was consistent with preliminary FBI data, which showed a 1.7 percent rise in violent crime for the first half of 2015, and a recent Justice Department study showing murder rising by 17 percent in major American cities. Still, in the broader context of history, crime and murder today are far lower than at any point in the 1960s or 1990s.
While any rise in violent crime is cause for concern, recent upticks appear to be highly localized. Half of the increase in murders we observed occurred in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. – all cities facing profound socioeconomic challenges. Similarly, 10 of the 56 cities analyzed by the DOJ accounted for two-thirds of the total increase in murders in their study.
Trump has singled out Chicago as a case for real concern. And he may be right, given the city's troubles this year. But crime in other "inner cities" is far from "out of control." Other major cities – notably, New York – are safer than they ever have been, for example.
This suggests a new twist on an old axiom: "all crime is local." But why? Simply put, we don't know – yet.
Some year-to-year variation is to be expected in crime. We've seen this before: 2005, 2006 and 2012 saw marginal rises in violent crime, prompting similar panic. In each case, crime rates flattened or dropped soon thereafter, vindicating calls for caution. We shouldn't listen to the alarmists this time, either. We should gather more data so we can understand exactly what's happening, and react intelligently.
We also need to keep a cool head. Stoking fear about rising crime risks inciting panic, and something else we know all too well: the "blame game." True to form, some commentators have already invoked the "Ferguson Effect" to blame increased crime on protesters (for criticizing police) and police (for shrinking back from troubled communities). This rush to judgment has far outpaced the data and offends all involved, jeopardizing the ties between police and communities just when they matter most. If we hope to rebuild that vital trust, officers can't be looking over their shoulders for a crime wave that simply isn't happening. We need to confront crime and justice with data and reasoned analysis, not tweets and slogans.
To be sure, any discussion of crime must include the tragedies we've all so recently witnessed. But as President Barack Obama warned last week, we can't let fear blind us to the need for action. "So often we wait until something bad happens and we react," he said. We can't afford to wait any longer. We need to have a serious conversation about how to keep our cities safe, while repairing our broken criminal justice system. But we can only succeed if we approach our problems realistically, without letting panic get the better of us.
These aren't easy times. Our cities and communities face real tension, but even today, we are a long way from where we were in 1960, or even 1990. Crime remains at or near historic lows, giving us a real chance for more progress toward shared goals. As Trumphas also said, "Every kid in America should be able to securely walk the streets in their own neighborhood." On that we can all agree.
James Cullen contributed to research.