Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
There is still no catastrophic crime wave overtaking the U.S., but the situation in Chicago cannot be ignored.
Donald Trump talks about crime and immigration (often stitched together) when on the campaign trail in the way that scientist James Hansen talks about climate change. Both approach their topics with rousing alarm that these threats are quickly rising to the point of total destabilization, especially for cities. The crucial difference is that there is a glut of research from hundreds of sources spanning decades across the globe to back up climate change prognostication. Trump has the opposite on his side: incomplete crime stats from over a few months or years at best, cherrypicked from a few cities in an attempt to make his screeds about urban crime waves stick.
Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse. Look what is going on in Chicago and our inner cities. Not good!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 12, 2016
Of course, claiming that crime has reached “out of control” levels by relying on such limited data is as asinine as a scientist pointing to a season or two of inclement weather to prove that climate change is real. (Which is why they don’t do that.) Those who’ve subscribed to the theory that U.S. crime has reached peak pandemonium should look at the latest analysis from the Brennan Center of Justice for calm.
Examining data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime reports for the first half of 2016, the Brennan Center found that violent crime is rising slightly, but mostly in just a few cities since last year. It’s a similar finding to what the Brennan Center found in its analysis of crime in major cities for 2015. But whatever escalating crime is occurring now is concentrated in even fewer places than it was last year, according to the center’s latest report.
Brennan researchers do anticipate a slight uptick in the national violent crime rate for this year—up 5.5 percent from last year. However, violent crime is still at “historic lows,” nowhere near as high as it was 30 years ago. A few cities are currently experiencing a dramatic upswing in violent crime, notably Chicago and Los Angeles. But the report points out that crime rates generally seesaw during one- and two-year intervals across longer periods of time. New York and L.A. are two prime examples of this: As shown in the chart below, both of those cities had sky-high murder rates in 1990, but have seen those rates drop considerably ever since, despite a few blips upward and downward during certain years.
In fact, if you heard anyone talking about crime spiraling out of control in certain cities last year, chances are those same cities are now experiencing drops in violent crime. Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C., accounted for half of the increase in the national murder rate from 2014 to 2015. But murder rates for Baltimore and D.C. are currently well below where they were this time last year, and are projected to fall by roughly 10 percent in both cities by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the five U.S. cities with the highest murder rates in 2015 are mostly different from this year’s top five:
Chicago is the exception, a city whose problems with violence are hard to exaggerate. Crime has risen in that city enough that it constitutes a huge portion of any rise in crime rates nationwide. Consider that the national murder rate is projected to increase by 13 percent this year, according to the Brennan report, but half of those murders will happen in Chicago alone.
Why Chicago? The Brennan Center offers a few possible reasons:
- The vast majority of gun crimes are coming from a few people who keep getting their hands on guns. In May, the Chicago Police Department reported that 70 percent of people who had been shot and 80 percent of those arrested in connection with shootings so far this year were on a “Strategic Subject List” of repeat gun offenders.
- Chicago’s police department has also lost more than 300 detectives since 2008, which has likely made it tougher for the police force to solve homicide crimes.
- The bulk of violent crimes are concentrated in Chicago’s poorest communities, which supports the theory that such crimes are more prevalent in areas suffering from economic depravation.
“The ‘national’ increase in murders identified,” for 2016, reads the report, “may owe more to profound local problems in a few Chicago neighborhoods than national trends.”
But there’s another possible explanation that Brennan Center researchers were not able to expound upon it due to a lack of data: arrest patterns based on changing police activity. A number of cities, including Chicago, have begun decriminalizing activities like possessing weed and reclassifying some felonies as misdemeanor or summary offenses. Some police departments have also complained of shrinking budgets affecting officer deployment. Some have alluded, if only anecdotally, to a supposed “Ferguson effect” that has chilled some police officers who fear having their activities captured on video.
The Brennan Center report says that its researchers attempted to collect data on short-term policing trends to sort this out, but were only able to obtain this information for Baltimore and Chicago. They plan to return to this analysis in a future report once more data is gathered.
It would have been useful to read what the researchers learned in the interim, if only from data on Chicago and Baltimore. The U.S. Justice Department is now intensively watching police activity in both cities. Chicago police have dramatically rescaled their approach to arrests since decades of police brutality were exposed in a shocking April Justice Department report. The same goes for the Baltimore Police Department, which is now undergoing an even more radical overhaul since the Justice Department found extensive, structural problems of racist violence in the force.
To be clear, when it comes to Chicago and Baltimore police, we’re not talking about patches of misbehavior here and there over the past couple of years. Rather, federal law enforcement authorities have found systemic and culturally embedded discrimination, corruption, and brutality running rampant throughout both police forces, which have cost both cities millions of dollars in lawsuits. That’s the kind of widespread criminal behavior that Trump is willfully ignoring when he implores the nation to allow police to engage in more racial profiling and aggressive tactics.