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Yes, the Crime Wave Is as Bad as You Think

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Yes, the Crime Wave Is as Bad as You Think

The Wall Street Journal December 8, 2021
Policing & Public SafetyAll

Progressives gaslight the public by claiming things used to be worse.

The U.S. experienced its largest-ever single year homicide spike in 2020, and crime now polls as one of the top voter concerns. This has many criminal-justice-reform advocates and their media allies scrambling to convince Americans that things aren’t really so bad, no matter what the data say.

At CNN, data journalist Priya Krishnakumar explains “how crime stats lie” by pointing out that 2020’s murder rate was “40% below what it was in the 1980s and 1990s.” The Brennan Center for Justice acknowledges that the homicide trend is “frightening” but insists that murders “have stayed far below their peaks” in earlier decades. In a “fact check” of “the ‘crime wave’ narrative police are pushing,” the Guardian reminds readers that “even after an estimated 25% single-year increase in homicides” in 2020, “Americans overall are much less likely to be killed today than they were in the 1990s, and the homicide rate across big cities is still close to half what it was a quarter century ago.”

True enough: The national murder rate was significantly higher in the 1980s and early ’90s. But the national murder rate reflects an aggregation of all the country’s homicides measured against the national population. When it comes to the recent upticks in killings, this talking point ignores two important realities.

First, we don’t live in the aggregate. The majority of Americans spend their lives in the communities where they live and, if they commute, where they work. Given how hyperconcentrated serious violent crime is—and, therefore, how widely the homicide rate can vary from one neighborhood to the next—the national homicide rate doesn’t provide most Americans with a sense of the dangers they face. A handful of extremely safe Illinois suburbs may counterbalance Chicago’s contribution to the national murder rate, but that’s little consolation to those who live in the South Side war zones.

Second, the claim that crime isn’t as bad as it was in the 1990s is no longer true for a long list of American cities, many of which have either surpassed or are currently flirting with that decade’s homicide tallies. Philadelphia just shattered its all-time annual homicide record with a full month remaining in 2021, as have Louisville, Ky.; Indianapolis; Columbus, Ohio; Austin, Texas; Tucson, Ariz.; St. Paul, Minn.; Portland, Ore.; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Fayetteville, N.C. Other cities, like Cincinnati; Trenton, N.J.; Memphis, Tenn.; Milwaukee; Kansas City, Mo.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Denver; Cleveland; Jackson, Miss.; Wichita, Kan.; Greensboro, N.C.; Lansing, Mich.; and Colorado Springs, Colo., saw their highest homicide tallies since 1990 last year.

Other cities flirting with their previous records include Shreveport, La.; Baltimore; Minneapolis; Rochester, N.Y.; and Tulsa, Okla. St. Louis didn’t surpass its highest tally in 2020, but owing to population decline it did set a new record homicide rate. Chicago, Seattle and Fort Worth, Texas, would all have to go back 25 years to see homicide tallies comparable to what they’re seeing now.

Shushing skeptics by pointing out that things aren’t as bad in the aggregate as they were 30 years ago invites an obvious question: So what?

This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal

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Rafael A. Mangual is a fellow and deputy director for legal policy at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. Follow him on Twitter here

Photo by kali9/iStock

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