Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A new projection has violent crime rates dropping this year in the largest U.S. cities. Homicides remain alarmingly high in some places, but one takeaway is clear: There’s little evidence to support Jeff Sessions' claim of a "dangerous permanent" crime rise.
Earlier this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke in Toledo, Ohio on “eradicating violent crime in America,” addressing a room of law enforcement officials. Sessions acknowledged in his speech that crime has been on a downswing since the 1990s, but he warned that this trend has “reversed” over the past two years. After citing stats from the latest Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) report that showed violent crime and murder rates increased in 2015 and 2016, Sessions turned his attention to rising crime in Toledo.
“In Toledo, rape is up 36 percent in just two years, assault is up 15 percent, and murders are up an astonishing 54 percent,” said Sessions. “We cannot accept these trends.”
This was news to Toledo, where Police Chief George Kral had just given a “state of the department” address two weeks prior to Sessions’ visit, and cited different statistics. Kral’s data showed that violent crime had dropped 11 percent and that homicides dropped from 38 in 2016 to 37 this year. Toledo’s Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson questioned where Sessions got his information from. It’s likely that Sessions was dwelling on crime figures from 2015 and 2016 that have since begun falling.
In February, Sessions called the rise in crime a “dangerous permanent trend,” but new crime data projections on America’s largest cities suggest otherwise.
The Brennan Center for Justice reports in its latest analysis that crime overall is projected to fall 2.7 percent below the 2016 rate, with violent crime also dropping 1.1 percent compared to last year in the 30 largest cities of the U.S. The Brennan Center also reports a 5.6 percent drop in murder since 2016, driven in large part by a double-digit decline in homicides in Chicago. The cities of Chicago and Baltimore have been two of the largest drivers of the national homicide rate in recent years, and both cities still have unusually high murder rates. Baltimore is projected this year to outdo its record-high homicide count of 318 in 2016. These murder rates remain deep cause for concern, and for many are inextricably linked to immovable gun policies.
Still, the bright spot in this year’s projection is that a majority of America’s largest cities are actually seeing violent crime drop. Looking at Brennan’s list of the 30 biggest cities, violent crime has dropped since 2016 in almost half of them, with double-digit drops in Columbus, Ohio (-11.8 percent) and Washington, D.C. (-23.5 percent). The majority of cities where violent crime rose saw an uptick of less than 5 percent. Baltimore, Fort Worth, Texas, and Memphis were exceptions with unusually high increases in violence this year.
When it comes to murder rates, several large cities experienced significant plunges since 2016: New York with a 16.8 percent drop; Chicago with a near-12 percent drop, while Houston’s dropped by nearly 30 percent. Several other cities experienced double-digit increases in their murder rates, although the number of murders that caused the spike were small. Portland’s 20-percent leap, for example, means it had 17 homicides this year compared to 14 last year. That said, there were significant increases in murders both per capita and in actual numbers in the cities of Charlotte, San Francisco, and, again, Baltimore.
And yet even with the data on rising homicides in those few cities, it’s still not accurate to say that violent crime is trending toward chaos. Crime has remained far below the days of record high homicides across the nation in the early 1990s, when the rate of violent crime was nearly double what it is now. There was also a two-year crime rise in 2005 and 2006, which some law enforcement officials wanted to exploit to bring back failed policing practices of yesteryear, but then crime began falling again after that blip in time. It appears this is happening again in 2017.
It’s difficult to get a good grasp of what precisely is or isn’t happening with violence in America because crime data collection across the cities is still a motley exercise. While the FBI is reporting rising crime, the National Crime Victimization Survey, which takes into account crimes both reported and unreported to the police, found that “there was no measurable change in the rates of violent, serious violent, or property crime from 2015 to 2016,” in counties where demographic and sampling data remained the same between the two years.
But even if going by the FBI’s numbers, it would not be accurate to peg the crime rise solely on large cities, as the Trump administration is wont to do. The New York Times reports that towns with populations smaller than 10,000 also saw a considerable jump in murders between 2015 and 2016. Sessions acknowledged this in one of his latest actions this week, when he announced that he was forming two new “Violent Crime Task Forces,” one located in Charlotte, North Carolina and the other in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Charlotte task force will focus on the city, but for the Pittsburgh site, the focus will be on the suburbs. Reads the press release:
The PG VCTF will focus on the proliferation of violent crime in the counties including and adjacent to Pittsburgh—Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Clarion, Lawrence, and Mercer. The Task Force will be assigned to the FBI Pittsburgh Division Headquarters. Pittsburgh’s violent crime rating is significantly higher than the national median. With the exception of the city of Pittsburgh, each of the counties in the area of the proposed Task Force has a violent crime per capita rate that is higher than the city of Philadelphia as calculated based on 2015 FBI crime statistics.
Sessions may just want to make sure that he is on the same page as the police chiefs in these areas, unlike in Toledo. Other law enforcement leaders are pointing to the Brennan Center report to say that the Sessions administration should perhaps calm down.
“In contrast to rhetoric we’ve heard about rising crime, this new analysis shows that all measures of crime and murder are in decline this year,” said former New Orleans Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas, who’s also chairman of the Law Enforcement Leaders, an organization that is affiliated with the Brennan Center. “False narratives about a national crime wave make it harder for law enforcement to implement proven tactics that address the real issues. We hope that leaders in Washington will prioritize support for local law enforcement’s efforts to swiftly combat violence in these cities – rather than perpetuating myths about crime rates."
This article is part of our project “The Presence of Justice,” which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge.