Are Murder Rates Really Going Back Up?

As I’ve mentioned in a number of posts over the years, I believe the Late 20th Century Crime Wave was one of the two or three most politically and culturally consequential events in the US in the second half of the twenty century. It is hard to overstate the impact of this very real rise in the rates of all violent crimes but most especially murder. And one of the greatest mysteries about it is that that for all the studies, theories and attempts to control it, we simply do not have a clear understanding of why it began in the early 1960s or why it ended over the course of the 1990s. I’ve noted that, somewhat against my better judgment, I’ve become increasingly open to the seemingly crude and monocausal theory that lead poisoning played a key role in driving the crime wave. Still, I think we still basically do not know. Yet, over the last year or so we’ve seen a rising chorus of commentary and political posturing which claims that increasing civil rights activism (i.e. Black Lives Matter or the so-called “Ferguson Effect”) and more permissive or cowed policing is at least starting to push crime rates back up toward where they were in the bad old days.

So what’s actually happening?

I wanted to look at the New York City story, in part because we have more concrete and easily assembled statistics available but also because New York City has been iconic both as the center of the Late 20th Century Crime Wave as well as its eventual decline. There has also been a particular political dynamic at work. The City’s crime rate actually began to fall under Mayor Dinkins. But it really began its wholesale collapse under Mayor Giuliani and he got the credit. The belief that Republican and later pseudo-Republican Mayors defeated crime was a key factor in 20 years of Republican control of City Hall.

The still relatively new Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on ending ‘stop and frisk’. Even during the 2013 campaign, Republicans and some worried Democrats were predicting that a new Democratic mayor, particularly one who had campaigned on reining in the excesses of NYPD policing, would bring back the bad old days where over the city saw more than 2000 murders a year. That backdrop has continued through de Blasio’s tenure as Mayor, especially in the light of an apparent uptick in the murder rate as well as the execution style killing of two NYPD officers in 2014. In other words, since de Blasio became Mayor there’s been a chorus in the wings looking for the predicted return to the days of disorder and runaway crime.

So what’s happened?

When I started looking at this I was curious to find out myself because I have heard a lot of reports of the murder rate specifically going up. That’s obviously bad news in itself. But it also confounds my assumption that the rise and fall of the murder rate over the second half of the 20th century had far less to do with policy interventions of any sort than we’d like to think. So if a mild ramping back of aggressive policing can shift the scales in the other direction, that changes the whole story significantly. If crime is on the way back up, I’d still be suspicious that it is tied to differences in policing. My assumption would be that the underlying trends, about which we understand little, have shifted. In any case, what I found was quite different from what I’ve been hearing and reading.

From the beginning of 2015 there has been what can only be called a relentless desire to find a spike in the crime and murder rates. So for instance, back on March 3rd, The New York Daily News ran “Murders up 20% in 2015 in year-to-year comparison, NYPD says“. Needless to say, when you’re only going on 2 out of 12 months the statistics can be very volatile. Then there was a less hyperbolic story that ran in The New York Times, “Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities, which noted a 9% increase in the murder rate for New York City. Then on September 21st, USA Today published ‘Bloody weekend in NYC puts rising murder rate in spotlight‘ which noted that “A bloody weekend in New York that saw eight shooting deaths could signal that out-of-control gun violence may return to the city” and then went on to say …

The number of homicides is up slightly over last year, and if the trend continues New York City may see its first uptick in the homicide rate after 25 years of decline.

Now, this last claim is worth zeroing in on. I’ve gone back and recompiled the number of homicides in New York City going back to the peak year of 1990. And whatever gloss, interpretation or prediction about the future one may make from these numbers, this point about a “first uptick” is simply false. Since 1990, even as the murder rate has gone down consistently, the number has actually gone up on a year over year basis 6 times: 1999 (6%), 2000 (.3%), 2003 (1.7%), 2006 (10.6%), 2008 (5.9%) and 2010 (13.8%).

As late as one week ago, Newsday predicted that the city murder rate would end up at just over 5%, with 350 homicides for the year. But as of Christmas Day, the number stood at 339 homicides for 2015, which would amount to an increase over 1.8% over 2014.

Now, I have no reason to think that these year over year percentage increases were wrong at the time they were reported (either in March or August or any of the intervening months). It seems clear that there was a surge in homicides in the first couple months of the year which didn’t continue. So the annual rate slowly fell over the course of the year. But looking at the numbers and the coverage over the course of the year it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that a mix of generalized fear and trepidation (driven in some but by no means all cases by political agendas) was hungry to find validation in the crime statistics that finally turned out not to be there.

I put particular emphasis on that “first uptick” claim, because many news reports have made this assertion, even though, as I pointed out, it is demonstrably untrue. It seems a clear example of not only seizing on an isolated, alarming statistic absent the full context but actually manufacturing data out of whole clothe to fit a particular narrative about resurgent crime. As I said, there’s a strong component of this that is political, emerging from what we might call the old Giuliani coalition, as well as the GOP, elements of the police department and conservative media, much of which is based in Manhattan. There’s also a strong press element. But we’d be fooling ourselves to think it’s only politics and the press. There is clearly an atmosphere of greater fear and sense of menace, even if it’s belied by the crime statistics.

The Times itself touched on this point yesterday with a very different article “Anxiety Aside, New York Sees Drop in Crime,” which notes that while New Yorkers seemed to feel less safe, over all crime actually fell by 2%.

Now, as a side point, murder is unique: it is the ultimate crime; it is the crime that scares people most; and it is statistically the most concrete. So I would understand if people felt that it was somehow a bit off to say that crime was down – except for murder. Still, even the murder rate seems to have risen only to a minuscule degree. And shootings, robbery, rape, assault, burglary, grand larceny and car theft all fell.

Obviously, New York City is not the country at large, though it was an iconic exemplar of both the rise in murder in the 70s and 80s and its precipitous fall in the 90s. It is possible of course that even with this very small increase in murders, 2015 could prove the first year of new increases. But that is the purest speculation, one undermined by the fact that the last quarter century has already seen half a dozen upticks which did not portend any increase but rather continued decreases. To get a broader picture, we’ll need to wait for the 2015 FBI crime statistics which will be published next year.

There is, however, this study by the Brennan Center, which looked at statistics from the 30 largest US cities. Needless to say, murders happen outside big cities. But their study, which was able to get data from most of those cities, found an overall 11% rise in the murder rate as of Oct. 1 (pretty substantial) and a slight decrease in crime overall. One point to bear in mind is that murder rates have fallen so far over the last 20 years that relatively small differences can be substantial in percentage terms. The numbers are still lower than they were as recently as three or four years ago. But there are some cities where the numbers have really jumped. In Washington, DC for instance, the murder rate has gone up 54 percent since last year, from 104 homicides last year to 160 this year. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s murder rate went up a staggering 61%! It’s worth noting that there were even more murders in DC as recently as 2008. Other cities like Boston, Detroit and Las Vegas have seen their rates drop substantially. But still, a 50% jump is a big move. There’s no getting around that.

The simple reality is that we won’t really know the story until the 2015 FBI statistics are released. And even then we will only know about a single year, which means very little. For the moment, what seems clear is that there is a public mood of panic, menace and fear. And at least in New York City, that seems to be the case even though it’s totally belied by the actual crime statistics.

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