Nuances of crime stats lost in 2016 presidential debate

The rate of violent crime in the United States rose markedly in 2015, though the increase masks a decades-long trend of declining crime rates during both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations.

But amid protests against police shootings of African-American men in cities across the country, and weeks before a presidential election which Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE has stumped for by warning of a growing crime wave, voters don’t believe things are getting better. 

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In fact, they are more apt than at any time in recent years to believe crime is a major problem.

Data released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Monday showed violent crime rising by 3.9 percent from 2014 to 2015.

The one-year increase belies a three-decade trend of falling crime rates. There were fewer violent crimes committed in the United States in 2015 — fewer than 1.2 million — than there were in 1981, even though the nation’s population has grown by nearly 100 million in the intervening years. 

The rate of violent crime has dropped from 636.6 per 100,000 residents in 1996 to 372.6 in 2015, the FBI said. The decline has been steady across three presidential administrations: Violent crimes dropped about a third during Bill ClintonBill ClintonAll five living former presidents to attend hurricane relief concert The Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE’s administration, by about 10 percent under George W. Bush and have fallen another 20 percent since President Obama took office.

“There’s no question the crime drop the nation has been in now for a couple of decades has not ended,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminal justice expert at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “A one-year crime increase does not spell the end of a long-term crime decline.”

Still, Trump has made crime central to his pitch to the voters, from his initial campaign kick-off warnings about Mexican “rapists” coming across the Southern border to Monday night’s debate at Hofstra University.

“We need law and order. If we don’t have it, we’re not going to have a country,” Trump said in the debate. “We have a situation where we have our inner cities, African-Americans, Hispanics are living in hell because it’s so dangerous. You walk down the street, you get shot.”

Trump claimed Monday night that the murder rate has gone up, and he is correct — though only over a one-year period. Homicides rose by 11 percent form 2014 to 2015, the FBI said. Researchers say it is the largest one-year increase since the 1960s.

The growing rate of homicides was largely focused in major cities, especially those riven by racial disparity. A Brennan Center for Justice study found that a fifth of the homicide rate’s growth could be attributed to just four cities — Milwaukee, Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. — that together account for just 1.5 percent of the U.S. population.

But like other violent crimes, murder rates have plunged since the early 1990s, to a level nearly half of the peak. The 2015 rate of 4.9 murders per 100,000 is lower than any year before 2010.

“Any increase in the murder rate puts us at, like, 2010 levels,” said Ames Grawert, counsel at the Brennan Center. “It’s still a much safer country than it has been.”

The American electorate doesn’t feel safer, though: Public opinion polls show more voters are concerned with crime rates than in previous years. In a Gallup survey conducted in March 2016, 53 percent of voters said they worried “a great deal” about crime and violence, the highest rate Gallup had measured since 2001. 

A YouGov survey conducted for The Huffington Post in August found 53 percent of Americans believed crime is a very serious problem around the country, while 61 percent believed, incorrectly, that crime had risen in the last decade.

In fact, the overall crime rate — including nonviolent property crimes — has fallen for 14 consecutive years. And early statistics from this year suggest the trend line will continue downward.

Criminal justice experts say there are three potential reasons for a spike in crime over the past year, though there is significant disagreement over their various influences. 

Some speculate that the growing heroin epidemic is at the core of the increase: As drug markets expand, violent criminals fight over territory. 

Others say prisoners returning to large cities contributes to higher crime rates: Those prisoners are more likely to be both perpetrators and victims of violence.

The most controversial theory is what experts call the Ferguson effect. The theory gives name to the growing tensions between disadvantaged African-American communities and police after the Ferguson, Mo., shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in 2014, and subsequent deaths of black men at the hands of police in Cleveland, Ohio; Baltimore and Staten Island, New York; and more recently in Tulsa, Okla.; Charlotte, N.C.; and elsewhere.

The Ferguson effect holds that tensions between African-American communities and the police either cause police to withdraw from fully engaged enforcement in those communities, or moves the communities themselves withdraw from the police. Some experts believe the resulting spike in crime is a combination of the two.

Police “depend on tips from the community, they depend on good relationships. And if those relationships aren’t holding up, you’ll see police less able to solve crimes,” Grawert said.

Both Clinton and Trump highlighted the need to repair relations between disadvantaged communities and local police during the Monday debate.

“You need better relationships between the communities and the police, because in some cases, it’s not good,” Trump said. 

“In addition to the challenges that we face with policing, there are so many good, brave police officers who equally want reform,” Clinton said. “So we have to bring communities together in order to begin working on that as a mutual goal.”