Stories about a “crime wave” are a lie

Posted on January 12, 2022

Over the past few months, the right-wing media has gone hog wild lying about the crime rate. And the mainstream media hasn’t been much better. Here’s the truth: U.S. crime rates for both violent and property offenses have declined substantially since the pandemic began in early 2020. In fact, Americans are now safer from crime than they have been in decades.

Compiling crime data is a slow process. We didn’t have the nationwide data about 2020 until October 2021. It’s compiled in two ways, annually, by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics conducts a National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) based on a sample of about 240,000 Americans in about 150,000 households. The FBI runs the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program, which compiles reported crimes from more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies. Only about 40 percent of violent crimes and 33 percent of property crimes are reported to police, so the victimization numbers are a bit more realistic.

***According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, violent crimes decreased by 22 percent from 2019 to 2020. (That category includes sexual assault, robbery and assault.) At the same time, property crimes decreased by 7 percent. (That includes burglary, trespassing, motor vehicle theft and other theft.)

***According to the Uniform Crime Reports, violent crimes decreased 18 percent from 2019 to 2020. (In the UCR, that category includes murder, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault.) Simultaneously, property crimes decreased 5.5 percent. (That includes burglary and motor vehicle theft.)

These sharp drops in crime are uncontestable, astonishing and historic. And you can check the numbers yourself! All the data is in one October 2021 U.S. Department of Justice publication.

What about 2021? We won’t have nationwide data for many months to come, however, city-by-city numbers suggest that 2021 crime rates won’t be particularly different from 2020. For example, crime dropped substantially from 2020 to 2021 in Boston and Pittsburgh, dropped slightly in Baltimore, increased slightly in New York City and the District of Columbia, and was mixed (violent crime slightly down, property crime a little up) in Philadelphia. 2021 crime rates should remain substantially below 2019 levels.

Granted, homicides have increased and so the media is talking about murder rates and nothing else. And let us not discount America’s horrific gun violence. But first, compared to what? Both homicide and overall crime rates are now about half of what they were 30 years ago. And second, only about three-tenths of one percent of violent crimes are murders. When violent crime goes down about 20 percent, as it did, it means that more than 1.2 million fewer individuals (and their families) were victims. People want to hear from their news media whether they, personally, are in greater or less danger of crime. About that, Americans are hearing almost no truthful information.

Who is driving this “crime wave” lie? Mostly it’s the right wing. That movement is energized by fear and loathing of people of color. Trump spent four years blaming crime on Latino and Black Americans, on BLM and Antifa, and liberal policies in general. Fox News and the entire right-wing disinformation machine constantly highlight crime committed or supposedly committed by people of color. (See the right-wing propaganda for yourself – Google news articles about “crime wave.”)

At the same time, police agencies aren’t correcting the record. You might think they’d want to take some credit for major decreases in crime, but no. Joining in with the right wing, generating fear, has been a very effective tactic to end all talk of “defunding” the police, or even right-sizing them.

Unfortunately, the mainstream media too often fails to push back. Legitimate broadcast and print news will run a thousand stories about horrific crimes and “crime waves” for every one story about the real statistics. But there are exceptions. In Los Angeles, when police warned of an ongoing crime wave, one reporter found that the police department’s own crime statistics proved that robbery, burglary and theft had, in fact, declined.

What does it all mean?

It means the right-wing pro-police arguments are absurd. You can’t say “defunding the police” or new accountability measures are increasing crime because crime has decreased. You can’t say that criminals are emboldened because they’re not. You can’t blame rising crime rates on immigrants because crime rates are down.

There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has affected both declining crime rates and increasing homicide rates. And we can all imagine why. But as for evidence, all we know is that, on average, Americans are safer from crime now than they have been at any time in decades. Why can’t we just say that?

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