Amid all the lamentations about “fake news” steering people wrong, few examples are as risky—and deadly—as the continued downplaying of violent crime in the national news media.
Fortunately, thankfully, and finally, a president-elect has the gumption to not only talk about this debilitating issue, but also promise to do something about it.
Earlier this week, Donald Trump echoed his head-on approach to reducing violent crime from the campaign, and promised that his administration would always put the safety of Americans first.
The biggest threat to safety for many decades now has been violent criminals. Yet the media ranks, from the Huffington Post to the Federalist to the American Spectator to U.S. News & World Report, prior to the election and since, keep on talking about crime being at “historic lows.”
Those two words have clear meanings. “Historic” indicates a time reference in the context of past events, or a significance in history. “Low” means a minimum point, level or figure. Used together to describe violent crime, they would lead a reader to believe that violent crime is happening at a rate below almost all other periods in American history.
Conveniently, crime rates aren’t matters of opinion. The Disaster Center has comprehensively compiled FBI Uniform Crime Rate data since 1960 for the nation and individual states.
Crime rates are calculated as incidents per 100,000 population, which negates whole-number comparisons that change as population grows or shrinks. FBI violent crimes comprise murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
The U.S. overall violent crime rate in 1960 was 160.9 crimes per 100,000 people. Last year, the most recent year for which FBI data are available, the violent crime rate was 383.2.
That doesn’t sound much like an historic low.
Admittedly, national rates can be misleading, because most crime is based on state laws, and crime is committed by individuals in localities. State analyses, however, add magnitude to the mistaken claims about “historic lows” in violent crime.
In Arkansas, for example, the 1960 violent crime rate was 33 percent lower than the national rate: a mere 107.7 crimes per 100,000 population. In 2015, the Arkansas rate was 521.3–much closer to our historic high of 595.1 in 1995.
Half a century ago, California’s violent crime rate was 239, nearly two-and-a-half times ours here in Arkansas. Has violent crime in the Golden Gate state been reduced to an historic low? Decide for yourself: The 2015 rate is 426.3.
That’s not the kind of statistical increase we’ve experienced in Arkansas, but it can hardly be called low in any historical sense–except recent history.
The violent-crime rate in California nearly doubled between 1960 and 1970, and more than doubled again between 1970 and 1990. So if the historical comparison extends back only 25 years ago, then yes, California’s rates are at an historic low.
In state after state, the story’s the same. Violent-crime rates are multiples of what they were in 1960.
In neighboring Tennessee, where Memphis and Nashville rates drive the whole state up, the violent crime rate for 2015 is seven times what it was in 1960. In Missouri and Louisiana, it’s three times higher; four times higher in Oklahoma.
A look at a few battleground states may help explain why Trump’s focus on reducing crime resonated in this media-imagined era of “historic low” rates.
States like Florida, North Carolina and Michigan have a long history of high crime rates (all three had violent-crime rates well above the national average in 1960). In each of those states, the violent-crime rate in 2015 was at least double what it was 55 years ago.
Ohio voters, on the other hand, had a rate that was half the national average in 1960; in 2015 it was four times higher. Pennsylvania’s rate is three times higher than in 1960. Up in Wisconsin, the violent-crime rate is 10 times what is was in 1960.
That’s historic, all right—an all-time high for the Badger State. The murder rate there jumped by 50 percent between 2014 and 2015.
Murder rates are not always reliable indicators of crime; they are often better indicators of emergency medical services, which help victims of attempted murder survive.
But many U.S. cities have seen spikes in murder this year. Chicago is probably the most high-profile example, where killings are up 45 percent this year, but other metro areas are also reeling from bloodbath levels.
Baltimore saw the highest increase in murder rate in 2015, which eclipsed the previous record from 1993 by 15 percent. St. Louis has the highest murder rate in the land, which is a staggering 12 times the national average. Cleveland and Milwaukee saw big increases in violence and murder, as did Houston and Nashville. Detroit’s violent crime continues its widespread woes.
In the core crime areas of those cities and many more, where real victims are suffering, trying to sell the “historic lows” line is a cruel farce. Violent-crime deniers need to wake up, and when they do, they’ll understand at least one part of the Trump phenomenon better.