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Is U.S. Crime Getting Better or Worse? It Depends on Who You Ask

Donald Trump’s “law and order” mantra reveals a significant problem in how we assess our safety at home.
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If you’ve paid even the slightest bit of attention to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, you’ve heard the same message delivered over and over again: Crime in America is bad, and it’s only getting worse.

“I am the law and order candidate,” Trump proclaimed at the Republican National Convention this summer, invoking an old staple of political campaigns geared toward conservative Americans anxious over social and demographic changes. “The irresponsible rhetoric of our president, who has used the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color, has made America a more dangerous environment for everyone,” he said. The point was clear: America is in the middle of a crime wave, and only he can fix it.

Except that premise isn’t exactly true. Despite the rise in crime in the 1970s and ’80s that gave way to our modern police system, violent crime has been on the decline since the 1990s. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting program and the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey — the two core statistical programs administered by the Department of Justice — the rates of murder, theft, robbery, sexual assault, and even arson have all declined sharply since 1993. The data doesn’t lie: The average American is far safer from violent victimization today than they were three decades ago.

But while data doesn’t lie, it can still mislead and confound. According to the FBI’s 2015 UCR data, released in late September, violent crimes jumped 3.9 percent in the last year; murders in particular rose 10.8 percent, the most murders in a single year since 2008 and the fastest rise since 1990, according to FiveThirtyEight (murders still accounted for a small portion of violent crimes, some 1.3 percent). But the 2015 NCVS data, released on Thursday, paints a starkly different picture of American crime: Violent crime victimization remained statistically the same as 2014, while the number of people who claimed to be victims of violent crime declined some 10 percent.

The disparity between the UCR and NCVS reports reinforces the need for better data when it comes to measuring crime.

How do we explain this gap? The first explanation is clearly methodological: The UCR compiles data from local police departments (which aren’t totally consistent in their reporting), while the NCVS measures the experience of violent victimization based on a sample of some 169,000 Americans, including unreported crimes experienced by victims who don’t end up calling the police (read: victims of sexual assault). The UCR measures homicide, arson, and other crimes that the NCVS doesn’t; the NCVS measures sexual assault (and threats to rape), attempted robbery, and other unreported crimes. Similarly, the two data sets have different definitions of various crimes, particularly property crimes, which are measured per capita in the UCR and per household in the NCVS.

So what explains the uptick in UCR data compared to the NCVS? Victims aren’t more or less likely to call the cops than they were in the 1990s, according to the Marshall Project, a phenomenon which could have explained the relatively static NCVS rate. Instead, it’s likely the UCR’s spike in murders, while significant as a year-over-year change, simply doesn’t reflect as complete experience of crime as the NCVS does; it’s scary on its own, but offset by declines in other forms of violent victimization. “The FBI’s UCR data for 2015 showed an uptick in homicides that looked scary as a percentage but only because crime has dropped so much,” the Washington Post’s Radley Balko explains. “Last year still saw the third-lowest violent crime rate since 1970 and the sixth-lowest homicide rate in 50 years.”

The conclusions of analysts like Balko and the Marshall Project are similar: Yes, there’s been an uptick in homicides, but it likely doesn’t reflect a national crime wave the way Trump means. Balko suggests that the rise in murders is likely localized in specific urban centers, a trend supported by a report released in May by the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association that saw a major spike in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Dallas.

At the time, FBI Director James Comey attributed the rise in the murder rate to the “viral video effect” or “Ferguson effect,” where less aggressive policing and frustration with law enforcement combine in a deadly mix (a measurable, but relatively overstated phenomenon). Some cities, like Chicago, need real help, but the UCR and NCVS data suggest that these are primarily local problems, not a nationwide “war on cops” or post-Barack Obama outbreak in mayhem.

Still, the disparity between the UCR and NCVS reports reinforces (again) the need for better data when it comes to measuring crime. The FBI is making strides, sure — consider the newfound collection of police shooting data in 2017 — but the Dickey Amendment still prevents the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from devoting their analytical prowess to better methodologies for measuring gun violence. After all: How can lawmakers design policy solutions across different bureaucratic regimes if they don’t have a complete picture of American crime in the first place?

There’s still a lot we don’t know about the experience of violence in America. But there’s one thing we can be certain about: It isn’t getting worse.