By Ted Scheinman
from Pacific Standard
There can be no prosperity, Donald Trump assures us, without law and order. That was the dominant theme of his speech tonight accepting the Republican nomination for president, and he drives it home with what sound like alarming statistics about American crime:
Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s fifty largest cities…. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60 percent in nearby Baltimore.
Trump posits a variety of causes for an uptick in violent crime—he hints strongly that Americans no longer respect police, and seems to allude to the “Ferguson effect”—but mainly he blames the Obama administration’s alleged “rollback of criminal enforcement.”
It would take a lot of time to fact-check each of Trump’s implications here, but let’s focus simply on the numbers. When dealing with these percentages, it’s important to recognize that crime has dropped so much over the last 20-plus years that, when it rises a little, it rises by a greater percent. As Pew reportedlast year, the rate of gun homicides has fallen by over 50 percent, from seven homicides per 100,000 people in 1993 to 3.4 homicides in 2014.
Speaking with the New York Timesshortly after that Pew report,James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University, cautioned against construing a short-term uptick as some sort of national crime wave.
“What’s basically happening is these cities are becoming victims of their own success,” Fox told theTimes; after all, the crime rate “can’t go to zero, and when you hit really low numbers, it can only go up.”
As for the “50 cities” number: While the homicide rate rose in 36 of America’s 50 largest cities, it also fell in 13; meanwhile, as the Washington Post has noted, those cities saw twice as many homicides in 1991 as they did in 2015.
So the alarmism is pretty misleading.
“I will present the facts plainly and honestly,” Trump promised tonight. “We cannot afford to be so politically correct anymore.” We also can’t afford to be careless with our denominators.