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Crime Story: Making America Scared Again

February 22, 2017

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To hear Trump talk about it, you might think that the country is having an unprecedented crime wave. During the campaign, he vowed that his administration would “liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities” and that “the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon, and I mean very soon, come to an end.” He has claimed that the national murder rate is at its highest in 45 or 47 years.  He has singled out Chicago (threatening to “send in the Feds”) as being the worst example of crime being out of control in America’s major cities, which he says are “facing a public safety crisis.” The trouble is that most of this narrative is false.

For complicated reasons, the US has long had much more crime that other developed countries, but national crime rates have dropped sharply since the early 90s and remain at levels not seen since the mid-1960s, despite an uptick since 2014.

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Chicago has a very serious crime problem and has suffered from increased gun violence in the last two years, but it isn’t even close to having the highest crime rate among the country’s major cities. In fact, St. Louis has the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate among big cities in the US (more than twice that of Chicago, which ranked 8th in 2016). The other top ten cities in 2016 were (in descending order) Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans, Cleveland, Newark, Memphis, Kansas City, and Atlanta. Moreover, San Antonio topped Chicago in percentage increase in the murder rate in 2016, followed closely by Memphis. A five-year average of murder rates 2015-2015 in major cities, shows Chicago ranked 18th, with about a third the rate of St. Louis, New Orleans, and Detroit. Many smaller cities throughout the country have much higher murder rates than these.

Take a look at this interactive graphic published by The Economist. Virtually all cities share the general trend of decline in murder rates since the early 90s, but if you look at them individually you see that there are spikes and dips that have no obvious correlation to the larger crime trends.  Indeed, criminologists have not been able to come up with any compelling explanation for the spike in violent crime in some cities–certainly not the one that Trump has been peddling which is that it’s because of violent gangs of illegal immigrants, something for which there is no evidence. In Chicago, the violent crime is concentrated in a few areas on the West- and Southside, and the rest of the city is as safe as any city in the country.

So why is Trump continuing to hold up Chicago as the poster town for violent crime? I think one fairly obvious reason is that Chicago is Obama’s adopted home town, and Trump likes nothing better than to denigrate anything associated with Obama. Then there’s the mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama’s chief of staff during his first term, which makes it a twofer. Emanuel, by the way, has met with Trump and other key members of his administration but has not received any pledges of increased federal assistance, despite Trump’s blustering about “sending in the feds.”

More generally, Trump has interwoven the false narrative of skyrocketing crime with the even greater false narrative of out-of-control illegal immigration. Hyping “inner city” (Whitespeak for “black”) crime plays to the racial fears and prejudices of his base of white suburban and rural supporters, convincing them–again falsely–that they’re in greater danger than ever of becoming a crime victim, and they better arm themselves.

Indeed, the most glaring omission in all this discussion is any mention of the proliferation of guns. The Economist points out that: “Crunching numbers on 280,000 murder records from 1980 to 2015 shows that among our 50 cities gun use has increased from 65% to 80% of all murders. But that number varies dramatically by city. Guns were responsible for 60% of murders in New York and 85% in Chicago between 2010 and 2015. Although both places have made progress in reducing non-gun-related homicides, Chicago’s gun murder rate is five times New York’s.”

Good luck these days having any conversation about reducing the number of guns.

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