Violent crime spiked in several major cities last year, pushing the national murder rate up by double digits, according to newly released annual crime data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The FBI's 2015 Uniform Crime Report was made public Monday morning, hours before Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump face off for their first televised debate and following days of tense protests over a police shooting in Charlotte, North Carolina. Trump—who calls himself the “law and order” candidate—has been stepping up his efforts to use the crime issue to supposedly appeal to African American voters and definitely stoke fears among his white working class base.
According to the FBI, violent crime rose 3.9 percent in 2015. There were 15,696 murders in the U.S. in 2015—10.8 percent more than there were in 2014. This pushed the murder rate to five homicides per 100,000 people. In cities with populations over 250,000, the murder rate was double that. More than 70 percent of homicides are committed using a gun.
Speaking at a violence reduction event in Little Rock, Arkansas on Monday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch acknowledged the uptick in violent crime but emphasized that 2015 still represented the third-lowest year for violent crime in the past two decades.
“The report reminds us of the progress that we are making,” she said. “It shows that in many communities, crime has remained stable or even decreased from the historic lows reported in 2014.”
That message is being echoed by criminologists and data scientists who are cautioning both presidential candidates against drawing too many conclusions from the new numbers.
John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University and a nationally recognized expert on crime and prison data, said it’s hard to draw any trend line at all from one or two years of data.
“You might hear comparisons like 'we haven't seen a jump like this since 1990' and it's important to understand what that means,” he said. “It means a lot less than it sounds like.”
Pfaff joined more than half a dozen experts including police officials, prosecutors, community activists and victim advocates at a press conference on Friday hosted by Harvard Law School to discuss the danger of politicizing the FBI’s data.
“We've had declining murders for 21 years, but in seven of those years the murder rate actually went up...including four years in a row -- and you didn't see people panicking,” Pfaff said.
Indeed, despite isolated increases in violent crime over the past two years, five- and ten-year trend lines show that Americans are safer than they were a decade ago. The violent crime rate in 2015 was 0.7 percent lower than the 2011 level, and 16.5 percent below the 2006 level, according to the FBI.
By any measure violent crime in the U.S. is near historic lows and the country is dramatically safer than it was a quarter century ago. Homicide and other violent crime are at about half of what they were at their peak in 1991. Gun homicides have dropped by about 40 percent since 1993.
Ironically, one consequence of such historically low crime rates is that small upticks in the actual number of offenses can have an oversized impact on percentage growth. Experts say this magnifier effect can make relatively small numerical fluctuations appear much larger when presented out of context.
“It would be a mistake to overemphasize a single year fluctuation,” said Ronald Sullivan, Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School. “Already in 2016 we're seeing a double-digit decrease in homicides in some of the cities that saw increases in 2015. On the whole it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense to focus on a single blip in year to year change.”
Nevertheless, Trump has been pouncing on crime and its racial contours to paint himself as a friend to minority communities, but thanks to tired strategies or bad optics that message has so far failed to land.
Over the past two months, he has met with black business and religious leaders in Philadelphia and Detroit. But for the most part he has delivered his campaign message to Black voters who live in America’s most violence-prone areas from such inexplicable locales as Manchester, New Hampshire and West Bend, Wisconsin -- where 94 percent of the population identifies as white.
His solutions are drawn from the failed 1990s playbook.
Last week, during a town hall in Cleveland moderated by Fox News' Sean Hannity, Trump responded to a question on the urban crime problem by endorsing more aggressive policing in the nation's hardest-hit communities.
“I would do stop-and-frisk. I think you have to,” the candidate said. “We did it in New York, it worked incredibly well...you have to be proactive.”
Despite Trump’s accolades, New York's long-running “stop-and-frisk” program is almost universally recognized as an epic failure. Before a federal judge ruled the practice unconstitutional in 2013, barely 6 percent of the more than 500,000 annual stops conducted by the NYPD led to an arrest, and of those only about half ended with the subject being convicted of a crime. According to a report from the New York State Attorney General's Office, just one in 50 stop-and-frisk arrests, or about 0.1 percent of all stops, led to a conviction for a crime of violence.
Most policing experts say the racially biased practice has only contributed to the breakdown of community in trust in law enforcement.
“You can flood an area with police and arrest everyone you come across breaking any law and crime will go down, but at the end of the day you’re just going to piss a lot of people off,” Frank Straub, who led the police departments in White Plains, New York and Spokane, Washington, told The Daily Beast.
Pissing people off is not something Trump naturally shies away from. But he attempted to walk back his comments, telling Fox & Friends he was referring only to Chicago when he mentioned the controversial stop-and-frisk policy. But later that night the candidate reiterated his endorsement of a stronger police presence during a rally in in Aston, Pennsylvania – a working-class suburb of Philadelphia.
“The problem isn't that we have too many police,” he told a crowd of several hundred, “it's that we have too few.”
The new FBI data is likely to give Trump's tough-on-crime message a boost as he heads into his first face-to-face encounter with his opponent — who he paints as being anti-police, and accuses her of pandering to more radical elements of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Whether that will help Trump win votes in November remains to be seen. A Fox News poll released last month showed the Republican nominee has the support of just 1 percent of African-American voters. According to the election blog FiveThirtyEight, he is in fourth place among Black voters -- behind both Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein.
In Aston, Pennsylvania on Thursday night Trump commented at length on the civil unrest in Charlotte that erupted after last Wednesday’s fatal police shooting of Keith Scott. He evoked the protests – which he called “riots” – to speak directly to minority voters.
“The main victims of these violent demonstrations are law-abiding African Americans who live in these communities and only want to raise their children in safety and peace with a good education,” he said. “I will be their voice. We will bring security to our African-American communities and our Latino communities. I say to the African American and Latino communities...I will fix it.”
His comments drew only muted applause from the almost all white crowd, which seemed hungry for a taste of the populist, pro-labor, anti-immigrant rhetoric characteristic of Trump's early campaign.
“Build a wall!” shouted one attendee during a lull in Trump’s speech about the plight of inner-city youth. By the time he transitioned to his bread-and-butter issues of free trade and immigration, audience members had begun leaving by the dozen.
Pastor Michael McBride, who works to reduce gun violence and mass incarceration as a program director for the PICO National Network, called even the suggestion of stepping up questionable police practices in minority neighborhoods “an affront those hardest hit by violence.”
“To say you’re trying to make ‘Make America Great Again’ is something that people in communities of color reject as a throwback phrase to an era where we had it even worse,” said McBride, adding that if Trump tries to exploit the new FBI crime data to “stoke fears” in his first debate with Clinton the candidate will be adopting the “tools of failed political leadership” going all the way back to Richard Nixon.
“It’s playing the Willie Horton card,” he said.
McBride’s reference to efforts in 1988 by allies of George H.W. Bush to paint his opponent Michael Dukakis as soft on crime by stoking racially tinged fear reflects the attitude of many in the criminal justice reform community who view “tough on crime” as a codeword for “tough on poor minorities.”
They worry that hyperbolic messaging about a growing American crime wave threatens to reverse significant, bipartisan gains toward reforming the criminal justice system.
In accepting his party’s nomination in July, Trump took pains to attach rising crime rates to the legacy of the Obama presidency, and its emphasis on reversing the tide of mass incarceration. And he has repeatedly blamed decades of Democratic rule for turning inner cities into virtual free-fire zones.
“You could go to war zones in countries that we’re fighting and it’s safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats,” he said during an August rally in Akron, Ohio.
Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color of Change, accuses Trump of “distorting reality” and “appealing to fear and racism.”
“The tough on crime campaign rhetoric does a disservice to public officials who have embraced change,” he said, “We should not let that positive momentum be derailed by lack of facts, fear, racism and demagoguery.”
According to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, violent crime remains near the bottom of the nation’s 30-year downward trend, with just three cities—Baltimore, Chicago, and Houston—driving a rise in the national average.
Even in these cities, the vast majority of citizens are safer than they've been in decades as shootings are concentrated in small geographic areas and among impact a targeted subset of individuals.
“Whatever blip we see in crime trends do not affect all people in every city, most places around the country are experiencing record lows in crime rates,” said Ronald Sullivan, Clinical Professor of Law & Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School. “These increases are concentrated in the most impoverished and most segregated areas.”
Trump’s poster child for “out of control” crime, Chicago, is a case in point. The city suffered 468 murders last year and shootings are up by nearly a third over 2013. But only five neighborhoods account for the bulk of the carnage.
Police say the majority of shooters and victims are drawn from the roughly 1,400 individuals on its “Strategic Subject List,” which tracks those individuals at greatest risk of violence based on such things as gang affiliation.
According to Miriam Krinsky – former assistant United States attorney in Los Angeles who studies crime trends—the vast majority of Chicagoans live in areas with record or near record lows in homicide.
“Crime is largely isolated to a very few neighborhoods in Chicago. They tend to be highly segregated pockets that are predominantly black and are among the city's poorest,” said Krinsky. “These are areas that are experiencing increases in violence despite the fact that they are policed the most aggressively and incarcerated at some of the highest rates.”
In Krinsky’s view, candidates that advocate getting tough on crime are ignoring decades of evidence.
“We know that tough on crime has failed, we know that ‘lock em up and throw away the key’ has failed,” she said. “If we could arrest and jail our way out of the gun violence problem, the areas that have had the greatest uptick in gun violence would probably be the safest places in america. We need to fix it, but fixing it does not mean being more tough on crime. These are not the approaches the people in these communities are asking for.”