For truth, not triangulation, on crime

Posted on March 9, 2023

With the blessing of President Biden, most Democrats in the U.S. Senate joined Republicans in voting to overturn the District of Columbia’s recodification of local criminal laws. This is because the Administration “believes criticism from the right over increases in crime is a serious vulnerability for Democrats—it drove the Dems’ House losses in New York in November—and that the party should insulate itself…”

This is Bill Clinton’s “triangulation” strategy, pure and simple. And it’s a recipe for political suicide. If progressives support regressive crime laws, conservatives will become even more regressive. All that will do is intensify the issue, energize the right, and demoralize the left.

The Democrats’ surrender on crime happened after the D.C. Mayor disagreed with tiny portions of the City Council’s 250-page sorely-needed law, making it easy for Fox News and the right-wing noise machine to go ballistic. Without getting into details, allegations that vicious criminals would be sentenced to shorter terms due to the recodification were false, but that’s not the point of this column.

The entire fiasco was premised on a years-long narrative that crime has been rising and is out of control in the Nation’s Capital. That narrative is simply not true.

The reality is, based on the police department’s own data, violent crime in D.C. is down 7 percent from 2021 to 2022, down 40 percent since 2015, down 50 percent since 2008, and down 77 percent since 1993. Property crime is also down 25 percent since 2015. While homicide—representing a tiny percentage of violent crime—is up, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, burglary and arson are way down. All this D.C. crime data is available on a single webpage, and the numbers are indisputable.

Here is the point: nobody stood up and told the truth. For years, progressive elected officials and advocates have been too scared to push back against the “rising crime” narrative. After a while, even the media was afraid to bring up the fact that violent crime was plummeting. They all let the narrative fester and strengthen, unwittingly helping to reinforce the racism behind it.

In fact, this same dynamic is happening everywhere. When crime goes down—as it has in cities, states and nationally—nobody talks about it. Instead, we let fearmongers dominate the media coverage by cherry-picking certain crimes over limited time periods. And cherry-picking is easy when nobody objects!

As we wrote last fall, violent crime across the United States plunged to its lowest level in decades during 2020 and 2021.

According to the latest National Crime Victimization Survey published annually by the Bureau of Justice Statistics at the U.S. Department of Justice, violent crime was down 21 percent over the past two years, down 37 percent over the past ten years, and down 79 percent since 1993.

So why does everybody think crime is rising?

First, Fox News and the right-wing media unceasingly promote crime stories, especially about Democratic cities and people of color, entertaining their base by reinforcing racists beliefs and “owning the libs.” To them, the truth is irrelevant. Besides, crime is the quickest way to stir up emotions; their audience eats it up.

Second, people who consume news on the Internet see far more crime stories than they previously saw, or would ever see, in any newspaper or TV show. That’s simply how news aggregators work. This makes it seem like there’s a crime crisis everywhere, every day.

Third, and most important, the mainstream media do not provide truthful counter-information on their own. Non-ideological media rely on an adversarial system. They look for a he-said-she-said story. If nobody provides them with opposing facts, they act like those facts don’t exist.

This is not to say that officeholders who face tough elections should take the lead. But progressive advocacy groups and officials in safe districts should. (Obviously, some already do, but not nearly enough to make a difference.)

Progressives need an ongoing research and media outreach effort in cities and states aimed at getting the legitimate media to tell truthful stories about the frequency of crime and the relative effectiveness of public safety “solutions.”

We should insist that every story suggesting that some cherry-picked subcategory of crime has gone up must give equal coverage to the broader truth of crime going down. Nonstop stories about homicide, for example, should at least acknowledge the reduction in far more common violent crimes like robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.

We should insist that legitimate media avoid statistics using words like “the first XX weeks of this year compared to last year.” Laws about criminal justice stay on the books for decades; it is preposterous to argue for a change based on “the last few” weeks or months. Besides, the most recent crime reports may be influenced by intermittent factors, like good weather or the latest “how-to” videos on TikTok.

We should insist that the media not confuse crime “reports” with the number of crimes. To say that “there were 75 more robberies this year” is ignorant. Most crime is never reported. Crime reports are actually a non-random sample of the true number. Like any poll based on voluntary participation, it is skewed by who participates. Some groups among the population are more likely to report crimes than others, and some types of crime are less likely to be reported by anyone. In the short term, any given rise may mean more crimes were committed, or it may only mean that more people are reporting.

We should insist that it is unreasonable to draw conclusions from “crime reports” unless they show consistent, long-term trends. One year to the next means next-to-nothing. It is not based on the laws of statistics; it has no scientific value. And the more a talking point drills down into subcategories of crime, the less reliable the data becomes. For example, a recent Washington Post editorial said:

The mayor’s focus on carjacking is particularly urgent. From 2021 to 2022, motor vehicle thefts rose 8 percent, to 3,761. But there have already been more than 1,000 such thefts in the first eight weeks of the year, up 111 percent compared to the same period last year.

First, carjacking, a violent crime, is not counted in the category of motor vehicle theft, which is a property crime. Second, the police have released only a few cherry-picked years of data on carjacking. Carjacking is a subcategory of robbery, a publicly-disclosed category which is down 40 percent since 2015, 53 percent since 2008, and 72 percent since 1993. Third, the Post trumpets a statistic comparing a mere 8 weeks in 2022 to 8 weeks in 2023. For shame! But in their defense, nobody was explaining why these numbers are garbage.

We don’t have to rely on this statistical detritus. The National Crime Victimization Survey is thoroughly grounded in the science of statistics. But, in addition to the fact that the media totally ignores this superior data, the survey has no breakdowns by city or state. This problem is pretty easily solved. It would be both practical and inexpensive to oversample given cities and states to provide them with scientifically reliable information.

Finally, we should insist that the legitimate media stop reinforcing racist messages, albeit unknowingly. For most of the white U.S. population, crime news is a “dog whistle” which they understand means they should fear black and brown people. When mainstream media coverage is little different from Fox News – as it often is on crime – it has the same effect on people. Fox is intentionally stoking racism. Shouldn’t real news media understand and avoid this obvious political tactic?

It is time for progressives to stand up and speak out. Otherwise, we’re all going to be clobbered by the crime issue in 2024.