Sunday, October 2, 2022

The real crime threat is the lack of reliable crime data

Crime is on the political agenda in a big way this year, with Republicans zeroing in on it as their favorite topic now that gasoline prices are moderating, reported Bloomberg.

Which naturally raises the question: Is crime rising? To which the shocking answer is — nobody knows. Not because anything unusual is happening, but simply because the usual state of America’s information on crime and policing is incredibly poor.

Contrast this state of affairs with the amount of data available on the US economy. There are monthly updates on job creation, the unemployment rate and multiple indexes of inflation. Commodity prices are publicized on a daily basis. Reports on gross national product come out quarterly, with timely revisions as more data comes in. Policymakers benefit from a deeply informed debate, enriched by commentary from academics and other observers.

But on crime the US is, to a shocking extent, flying blind. As a July report from the Brennan Center for Justice noted: “More than six months into 2022, national-level data on crime in 2021 remains unavailable.”

There is some data. In America’s largest cities, the murder rate rose in 2021. And since national crime trends almost invariably follow the trends observed in this sample of 22 cities, analysts are confident that there was a nationwide increase in murders last year. It’s also very likely that there was an overall increase in shootings and violent assaults. But beyond that, it’s hard to say.

It’s possible to draw sharper conclusions by going back to 2020, the most recent year for which there is official data. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program makes clear that there was a very large increase in murdering in 2020. It also shows that the rise took place across the board — murders rose 20% in rural counties and 20% in suburban ones, so whatever went wrong can’t be pinned entirely on “Democrat mayors” or big-city politics.

That said, the increase in central cities with 250,000 or more people was even larger — about 34%. With hard numbers rather than statistical imputations in hand, it’s clear both that there was a city-specific problem — presumably related to the fallout from George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent national wave of protests — and that whatever that problem was, it doesn’t explain the majority of the increased killings.

For 2021, the picture gets much fuzzier. Murder rose in big cities, but by a much smaller amount than it did the prior year. And in smaller communities? Who knows.

For 2022, researchers tell me the best source is the data assembled by a private company called AH Datalytics. Its team basically looks at 92 large cities that publicly report murder data in a somewhat timely matter and puts the numbers into a spreadsheet. This ends up pretty messy, since as of this writing some cities (Kansas City, Washington) have updated information from as recently as Sept. 14, while others (San Antonio, Shreveport, La.) are updated only to March 31. And of course this rough-and-ready calculus doesn’t allow for comparison of crime trends in central cities with suburbs and rural areas.

Nonetheless, for the record, murder is running at a pace that’s about 3.5% lower this year than last year.

The dearth of information is a problem not only for rigor-minded policymakers. It also leaves the political arena open for manipulation by demagogues. Since nobody actually knows in real time what’s happening, anecdotes can just stand in for made-up fears. Since the very real murder surge of 2020 now has people primed to believe “crime is out of control” narratives, any particular instance of violence can be used to support that story.

What all this anecdata fails to recognize is that the US is a gigantic country, so even in a very low-crime year like 2014, there were multiple people being murdered every day. A person could have issued daily updates painting a terrifying portrait of life in the US even at a time when violence was at its lowest ebb.

By the same token, when murder really was soaring in 2020, it was easy for progressives to stay in ideologically convenient denial for far too long, since it was genuinely impossible to actually prove that it was happening until much later. The people who dismissed the anecdotal evidence of rising crime were, in that case, mistaken. But the Republicans who are stoking fears of rising crime right now also appear to be mistaken. And the lack of information about geographical patterns in murder trends means no one has much ability to assess what social or policy factors may be in play.

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