Two Fact Checks on Donald Trump and Crime

In tonight’s speech, Donald Trump will accept the presidential nomination of the Republican party. The text of Trump’s speech makes the following claims regarding crime in the United States:

“These are the facts:

“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.

“Homicides last year increased by 17% in America’s fifty largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years.”

Let’s look at these two claims and check the facts.

Fact Check of Claim 1: “Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this Administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.”

Response: The annual FBI report Crime in the United States provides the most recent data on crime, both in the United States overall and in particular communities. Annual reports are released every fall to describe crime in the year before, based on direct reports of police officers all over the country (the delay occurs because it takes time to gather all those reports and carefully tabulate them). The most recent report was released in 2015, describing crime in the year 2014. Anyone who tells you they know about U.S. national crime trends for any more recent year is fibbing — because 2016 isn’t over yet, and because final counts for 2015 are still being worked on.

The trends on violent and property crime victimization rates in the United States are shown below, from the very first page of the 2015 Crime in the United States report, released at the end of September 2015:

violent and property victimization rates in the United States from 1993 to 2014

People can disagree about policy, but it is not possible for policy changes to have led to a reversal in progress in the crime rate in the United States, because there is no evidence that such a reversal exists.

Fact Check of Claim 2: “Homicides last year increased by 17% in America’s fifty largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years.”

We don’t actually know whether this is the case, because final data for 2015 is not yet available. A preliminary count, that is not a final count, that is only for the first six months of 2015, and that is only for cities with over 100,000 in population — has been released. Here it is. Let’s realize, based on this data (look at Table 4), that:

First, we do not yet actually have a final count for 2015.

Second, on the basis that only the first six months of 2015 have been counted, it is not possible to make the conclusion that Donald Trump makes regarding the entire year.

Third, if we actually look at the fifty largest cities in the United States, and look at the preliminary count for the first six months of 2015 (not the entire year), we find that the homicides are up 8.4% in America’s fiftiest largest cities compared to 2014 — Donald Trump’s speech claims twice as much as this.

Fourth, it’s interesting that the speech only focuses on homicide, and not on violent crime in general. The increase in the violent crime rate from 2014 to 2015 is 3.1%.

Fifth, even these rises do not take into account the rise in population of America’s fifty largest cities, increasing the population, which will of course increase the number of murders.

Sixth, even this increase, in the context of the huge falls of the last twenty years, still marks a low crime rate in America’s fifty largest cities in recent history. The preliminary homicide rate in the fifty largest cities of the United States in the first six months of 2015 was 4.06 homicides per 100,000 people. In the first six months of 2015, the overall violent crime rate was 305.7 per 100,000 people. By comparison, in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president and the decline in homicides was already well underway, the homicide rate was 12.1 per 100,000 people in America’s 50 largest cities, and the overall violent crime rate was per 852.9 per 100,000 people. In other words, since Barack Obama became president, if the 2015 preliminary data holds, the homicide rate is down 66.4% and the violent crime rate is down 64.2%.

It turns out that Donald Trump’s claim is based on a post made in very early estimate by a blogger using very early data in January 2016, less than a month after 2015 ended.

This second claim by Republican nominee Donald Trump, like the first, is not supported by the facts.

Gun Violence Fact Check: the New Normal is Lower than the Old Normal

On Bill Moyers’ website, Cliff Schecter asks readers to “Say No to ‘The New Normal’ — Five Things You Can Do About Gun Violence.” This headline implicitly asserts that the level of gun violence being currently experienced is new — a “new normal.” The first paragraph of Schecter’s article implies that gun violence is not at a “new” low, but rather a “new” high:

“Some days it can seem like we should just give up. You’re just processing one senseless mass shooting in Las Vegas when you find out there has been a mass killing in Florida. But there’s no time to think about that because your television is saying that there’s a shooter on the loose in North Hollywood, and there has been another high school shooting in Oregon. It can lead to despair.”

Notice that Schechter’s claim about a rise in gun deaths to an unacceptable “new normal” is based in the way things “seem” to citizens based on reports in the news media. But perceived changes in reports in the news are not the same as observed changes in the event itself. To uncover the latter, let’s consult historical data from the FBI’s compilation of police reports in the 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Crime in the United States publication. Although police reports are not a perfect measure of actual levels of crime, homicide is perhaps the one crime most transparent to police reports and is most likely to gather data regarding the mode of death. The Crime in the United States publication brings us close as possible to charting the actual trend in the number and type of homicides in the United States. Counts of murders involving firearms from 1992 to 2012 (the last year for which data is available) are presented below:

Number of Murder Victims Killed by Firearms.  Source: FBI, Crimes in the United States reports

According to these records of police reports, there has been a decline rather than an increase in murder by gun in the United States. That decline in numbers is striking considering that during the same period the U.S. population rose. On January 1, 1992 the United States population was 254,782,555. On December 31, 2012 the United States population was 315,073,604. If the rate of gun deaths per person remained absolutely the same from 1992 to 2012, we would have seen an increase in the number of gun deaths of 23.7% simply because in 2012 there were 23.7% more people. Instead, the UCR figures show a drop of 42.8%, from 15489 murders by firearm in 1992 to 8855 murders by firearm in 2012.

It could be reasonable to argue that 8855 gun-related killings in the United States are still too many, and it could be reasonable to discuss what might be done to reduce the number of gun deaths even more. On the basis of nationally-collected data, however, it is not reasonable to assert that levels of gun violence are on the rise to some unacceptably high “new normal.”