The drops came across categories of violent offenses, including murder, non-negligent manslaughter and robbery, and property crimes like burglary, larceny and vehicle thefts, while aggravated assault numbers remained about flat. The rate for rape bucked this trend however, up slightly for 2018, and in each of the last six years.
The overall numbers, recorded by police departments across the country and compiled annually by the FBI, are welcome news for crime researchers like Ames Grawert, who closely monitored an uptick in violence in 2015 and 2016.
“That's a really good sign that the long term trend towards greater safety is not in fact reversed, and that we’re moving past whatever happened in 2015 and 2016,” said Grawert, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute at New York University’s School of Law. “It’s a reminder that two years isn’t a trend, and two years doesn’t break a trend.”
Mostly fueled by a spike in homicides in a handful of large cities, the nation’s violent crime rate increased by 3.3 percent in 2015 and 3.5 percent in 2016 before dropping. Some opponents of criminal justice reform seized on the two-year uptick as proof of what they called a new cresting crime wave. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in early 2017 that his “best judgment” was that these data represented a “dangerous permanent trend.”
That spike also fueled the emergence of the so-called “Ferguson Effect” hypothesis, that the Black Lives Matter protest movement had prompted demoralized police officers to cut back on proactive policing strategies in response to scrutiny from the general public. Then-FBI director James Comey described it as “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement.”
University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, who authored several studies on the spike, has found that something akin to a “Ferguson Effect” likely did contribute to increased murder rates in a handful of cities, like Chicago and Baltimore, but that the “demoralized cops” explanation was unsupported by the data. A study he co-authored in March found “no evidence” that arrest rates had any effect on homicide rates in the cities and time period examined, a correlation one would expect to see if a dip in proactive policing was really to blame.
“The uptick in homicide was more likely associated with a crisis in police legitimacy: People, especially in disadvantaged minority communities, drawing even further back from the police,” Rosenfeld told The Marshall Project. “There is an avalanche of research right now in criminology pointing in that direction, that declining legitimacy is associated with increases in crime.” Predatory violence might increase, for example, because offenders believe victims and witnesses will not contact the police to report incidents.
Violent crime did not decrease across the board in 2018, however, and one category is in the midst of a slow but persistent six-year upward swing: rape. For the 2013 statistics the FBI changed its outdated parameters of rape—then defined as the forcible “carnal knowledge of a female”—to a more modern definition structured around consent, rather than force. Ever since, the rate has been on a steady surge, up more than 18 percent in that period.
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