The truth about crime in America

Between now and November 2022, you will likely hear a lot about an alleged crime wave that is sweeping the country. Many Republicans are already keying in on the issue, including Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR), who authored a piece about crime for Breitbart. The article is accompanied by pictures of people committing various property crimes.

You might be surprised to learn that, according to FBI data cited by Cotton, property crime declined significantly in 2020. It continues a decades-long trend of fewer property crimes.

The same FBI data shows that, overall, crime decreased. But violent crime did go up about 5%. Is that a "crime wave"? Let's put last year's increase in violent crime in context. 

Can the small increase in violent crime in 2020 be fairly classified as a crime wave? Violent crime remains far below its peak in the 1990s and is significantly lower than in the early 2000s. For the last decade, violent crime has been essentially flat and 2020 did not change that trend. 

If you isolate homicides, however, there was a significant increase in 2020 of 26%. Still, the rate of homicides remains well below its peak in the 1990s. 

2020 was an unusual year, with normal life disrupted with pandemic-related restrictions. So the increase may not reflect a long-term trend. Still, every homicide is a tragedy and it's worth exploring the cause of the increase. 

Cotton posits that "Democrat mayors, progressive prosecutors, and liberal governors are to blame." This claim does not hold up to scrutiny. Wyoming, a state with a Republican governor and dominated by Republican officials, had the largest spike in homicides among the 23 states that reported data, 92%. The second-largest spike in murders, 67%, was in South Dakota, which also has a Republican governor. 

Cotton highlights that "murder rose 50 percent in Chicago, 44 percent in New York, and 38 percent in Los Angeles" — cities run by Democrats. But he doesn't mention that murder rates rose 62% in Ft. Worth, Texas, which has a Republican mayor. Or that Jacksonville, another city with a Republican mayor, is the "murder capital" of Florida.

A report by the think tank Third Way notes that "in conservative media outlets like Fox News there is a drumbeat that overly permissive crime policies enacted by Democrats are putting Americans at risk to violent crime." But the "data does not back this assertion."

For overall crime, "seven out of the twelve states with decreasing overall crime rates between 2019 and 2020 have Democratic governors" and "[f]our out of eight states with increasing crime rates have Republican governors."

The abuse of crime statistics by Cotton and many other Republicans for political purposes makes it more difficult for Americans to understand the truth. It also makes it more difficult to identify and implement policies that could actually make the country safer.

Police reform is not responsible for the rise in murders

One common argument among Republicans is that the rise in murders is the result of police reforms implemented in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, which took center stage after the murder of George Floyd. 

“During the fall and winter [of 2020] mayors and governors waged a relentless campaign to defund, disarm, and defame police officers,” Cotton said in the article. But the data shows little relation between reforming police conduct, reduction in police funding, and increased murder rates.

A report by Third Way looked at the 21 states that “passed legislation or issued executive orders to improve policing and justice” in 2020. Massachusetts, which created new training courses and oversight commissions, experienced the lowest increase in murder rate among jurisdictions included in the study. In Colorado, California, and Nevada, all states that passed new police reforms, crime rates were flat. Wyoming and South Dakota, two states that passed no police reform legislation, experienced steep increases in murder and violent crime. 

The police were not "defunded" last year. Most "cities increased their police budgets last year, with the budgets decreasing in just 37 of the 105" major cities that reported the data. Cities that reduced their police budget “were about as likely” to have an increase in murder rates as the cities that increased their budgets. The report found that murder increased in 84 percent of the cities that lowered their budgets, but also in 79 percent of the cities that raised their police budget. 

Why there were more murders in 2020

If it wasn't "crime-lenient Democrats" or the "defund the police" movement, what accounts for the increase in murders in 2020? There is no pat explanation. 

One possibility is that it was related to the pandemic. As Vox notes, criminologists have linked "isolation and idleness" — something there was a lot more of during the pandemic — to crime. Many programs designed to increase social cohesion and reduce violence, like sports leagues and community centers, were shut down. Another data point supporting the pandemic as a cause is that murders were in line with prior years until they began to spike in April, precisely when COVID took hold in the United States. 

Another likely factor: guns. Americans purchased 23 million guns in 2020, which was a record. It represented a 65% increase over the number of guns purchased in 2019. An increase in the number of guns has been linked to increased violence. That relationship is reflected in the weapons used in 2020's homicides. "About 77 percent of reported murders in 2020 were committed with a firearm, the highest share ever reported, up from 67 percent a decade ago," the New York Times reports

The reality is that there is a lot of uncertainty in national crime statistics. It is "the sum of a range of contradictory, extremely local crime trends." It is unlikely that there is one factor that explains the spike in murders in 2020.

More policing doesn’t necessarily reduce violent crime

Another common argument is that increasing the number of police officers would reduce violent crime. Cotton insinuates this in the article, mentioning that “even though the FBI gathered data from over 100 additional law-enforcement agencies than it did in 2019, it estimated 1,000 fewer police officers.” 

Would more police officers result in less violent crime? The evidence is mixed. Some evidence points to a correlation between more sworn officers and reduced crime rates. A 2019 study in the Journal of Public Economics looked at extra police officers hired in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It found that "each additional police officer prevented 4 violent crimes."

Other data that takes a more comprehensive look at policing complicates this conclusion. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration used millions of dollars in federal funds to hire more police officers in hopes to lower violent crime rates. According to a report in USA Today, the nation had “242 police officers for every 100,000 residents” in 1997. In the two decades that followed the number of police officers per capita dropped significantly. By 2016, there were 217 police officers for every 100,000 residents, but the violent crime rate also dropped 37 percent during those 19 years. In other words, the shirking police force was accompanied by less violent crime. 

Violent crime is also only a fraction of police work. So much of the current force is involved in other activities. According to the New York Times, violent crimes account for about 4 percent of the calls that police handle regularly. 

Alternative methods to reduce violent crime

The National Institute of Justice released a report that found that providing high-risk youth with extra mentoring and thinking skills can result in lower rates of violent crime. Control trials by The University of Chicago Crime Lab found that targeting youth who are at risk of reacting violently and providing lessons on how to de-escalate violent encounters reduced violent crime arrests by 30 to 50 percent

Another method to decrease crime rates is increasing gun control. According to data from the Gun Violence Archive, nearly 20,000 Americans were killed by gun violence in 2020, which is more than any other year in “at least two decades.” 

According to a study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, states requiring universal background checks for all gun sales had homicide rates 15 percent lower than those without. Prohibiting the possession of firearms by people who have been convicted of a violent crime resulted in an 18 percent reduction in homicide rates.