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That Crime Wave You're Hearing About? Try to Find It

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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It often seems to me as if Donald Trump’s view of the world is stuck in the 1980s. For one thing, he seems to think Japan is an export powerhouse, when the country has run a trade deficit for most of the past five years. Even stranger, Trump seems to believe the U.S. is caught in a nationwide crime epidemic. This was the centerpiece of his speech at the Republican convention in Cleveland. But the truth is that fears of a crime wave belong in 1986, not in 2016.

Here’s Trump:

Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement. Homicides last year increased by 17% in America’s fifty largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60% in nearby Baltimore…The number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50% compared to this point last year.

If you think about it, this doesn’t make any sense. If the Obama administration’s policies were responsible for increasing crime, you’d think the increase would have happened before the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Yet, violent crime, which had already declined by about half since its peak in the early 1990s, fell steadily for most of the Obama years. Here are the figures for murders and rapes:

The Worst Crimes
Per 100,000 population
 
Source FBI Uniform Crime Reports

And for robberies and aggravated assaults:

Safer Streets
Per 100,000 population
 
Source: FBI Uniform Crime Reports


Trump thinks that Obama’s “rollback of criminal enforcement” took six years to have an effect, but that he’ll be able to end the crime wave almost immediately. I must say, I’m kind of skeptical.

Trump also overlooks that killings of police officers have generally been lower during the Obama years than during the years when George W. Bush was president:

In the Line of Duty
Officer fatalities, all causes
 
Source: National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund

It’s not just that criminals are killing fewer officers -- they’re attacking less often. Assaults against police have declined steadily since the 1980s; this trend has also continued during the Obama years.

Trump’s claim that Obama is lax on enforcing the law also appears to be false. The President’s Council of Economic Advisers has recommended putting tens of thousands more cops onto the streets. His rhetoric has been consistently and strongly supportive of police. Obama has even deported record numbers of undocumented immigrants -- a trend I don’t personally like, but one that would please many Trump supporters if they knew about it. In any case, it’s clear that Obama is far from soft on crime.

Trump is right that 2015 saw a crime increase. But not only was it tiny, it hasn’t come close to reversing the spectacular decline of the past two decades. Murders rose in many cities, but individual cities’ crime rates are like the performance of individual stocks -- they’re more volatile, year to year, than the overall average. Violent crime in general was up only 1.7 percent in 2015. As in investing, we diversify to reduce risk -- similarly, when considering crime rates, we should look at averages to filter out the noise.

And it’s important to remember another lesson from investing -- when we talk about percentage increases, the base amount matters. If there are 30,000 murders a year, a 1.7 percent increase means more than 500 additional murders. But if there are only 15,000 murders, a 1.7 percent increase means only 250 more. So the stunning crime drop since the 1980s means that 2015’s rise represents a much smaller increase than it would have three decades ago.

So Trump’s dark, frightening rhetoric is many years out of date. People who don’t live in America’s big cities might still think of them as terrifying jungles, but those who have spent time there know how much safer most of them have become. Of course, there are still a few cities where crime is out of control -- Detroit and Baltimore come to mind. And nationwide crime rates are still much higher than they should be. So it’s important that U.S. leaders keep up the good work that has reduced crime by so much since the '80s. But we shouldn’t fall prey to Trump’s fearmongering because the facts tell such a very different story.

Of course, it’s worth noting that this also applies to liberals’ rhetoric about guns and gun crime. The same happy trend that has seen crime recede has also meant fewer murders and assaults with guns -- even though the numbers of guns owned by Americans has soared. In fact, about two-thirds of the gun deaths in the country are now suicides, not homicides. So liberals should probably suppress the urge to sound the alarm in the wake of the latest high-profile shooting -- doing so probably just encourages the kind of unjustified alarmism about crime being promulgated by Mr. Trump.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net