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.

Gas Prices in and out of Context: Hi and Lois need a Fact Check

On October 18 2014, the comic strip Hi and Lois comic strip looked back with fondness on a time when gas prices were just 35.9 cents a gallon.  At the present day, the middle-class character Hi grimaces as he pumps gas costing $3.99 cents a gallon.  In a meta-analysis of existing research, social scientist Michael R. Hagerty found that people tend to view their own lives as getting better but at the same time tend to look backward in time and conclude that the lot of the average person is getting worse.  In other words, we use rose-colored glasses to view our own lives, but gray-tinted glasses to view trends in the world in general.

Hi’s view of the world is certainly tinted gray in the strip you see below, but is this pessimist funk merited?  I don’t think so; the way out of the trap of our psychological biases is to check for sociological context.  Doing that, I’d alter the Hi and Lois strip from the original into a more realistic new version:

Put Hi and Lois in Context -- are gas prices in 2014 really that bad?

Correction 1: Gas hasn’t had a price of $3.99 per gallon in the United States since July of 2008. The average price per gallon of gas in the United States was down to about $3.10 in the middle of October 2014, and they’re getting even better a month later. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank Economic Research Database.

Correction 2: The last time gas cost 35.9 cents a gallon in the United States was the year 1969, but that literal price doesn’t tell the whole story; those 35.9 cents were worth a whole lot more in 1969 than they are worth today. If we adjust for inflation, paying 35.9 cents in 1969 had the same punch to our wallets as paying $2.32 today. Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics and

Correction 3: Why do we put gasoline in cars? To go somewhere. Chance Brown forgets that the fuel efficiency of cars was far different in 1969 from the fuel efficiency we experience nowadays. In 1969, passenger cars traveled 13.6 miles on a gallon of gas, on average. In 2013, the last full year for which data is available, passenger cars traveled 36.0 miles on a gallon of gas, on average. Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration.

If we put all these pieces of information together, it turns out that on average and adjusting for inflation, it took 17 cents to travel a mile in a car in 1969. In contrast, it only takes 8.6 cents to travel a mile in a car today.  The depiction of gas prices as a rising social problem doesn’t match the cheaper cost of transportation today.  There may be other social problems associated with fossil fuel transportation, but economy is not one of them.  Unless Hi is driving an extra-large SUV and driving his fuel efficiency far below average, he should be smiling, not frowning.  Even and especially when trends seem obvious, it’s important to put them in context.

School Shootings and the Thomas Theorem: Real in their Consequences

“If men define situations as being real, then they are real in their consequences.” — W.I. Thomas and Dorothy Swain Thomas, 1928, The Child in America

The Thomas Theorem is a staple of sociological insight, asserting that beliefs have a force of their own, whether those beliefs are factually accurate or not. If people believe something to be true, and act on the basis of that belief, then that belief can have observable consequences in the world, even when a belief is false.

As a case in point, consider our beliefs about the risk to children from school shootings. A regular Gallup Poll of the parents of school aged children shows that a significant portion of Americans with school-aged children have consistently expresed fear for their children’s safety in school, and that the share of parents expressing such fears has increased in recent years:

Gallup Poll Question: Thinking about your oldest child, when he or she is at school, do you fear for his or her physical safety?

We are particularly worried about our children being shot and killed by aggressors packing guns. A typical Facebook discussion not only characterizes the current level of school shootings as “too many” but asks, “How many more innocent people are going to die before they actually do something worthwhile to stop this?” Tennessee resident Kali asks, “Are our children safe at school? School shootings are everywhere with no school exempt. Where or what security measures have been taken to ensure our child’s safety?”

In American culture, we believe that our children are at significant risk in school. But at the same time that parents’ concern runs high, the actual count of children killed in school shootings runs low and, if anything, sunk even lower in recent years. As the latest report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows, the in-school homicide rate in 2010-2011 was 0.00002 percent, which means a child’s chance of being killed in school was 1 in 4.5 million.

In response to these kinds of calls, Hardwire Armor Systems LLC has been marketing bulletproof whiteboards to schools. Its 18×20 model is meant to be used as a standard handheld whiteboard, but features handles on the back and is designed to protect a teacher facing a school shooter from “multiple magazines of ammunition from handguns or shotguns without ricochet or injury.” The most basic 18×20 bulletproof whiteboards Hardwire offers costs $399 — $383 more per whiteboard than a standard whiteboard of the same size.

Is this extra expenditure in every classroom worth it? Hardwire Armor Systems LLC says so, and offers glowing testimonials from students like 9th grader Tori Barros to explain why:

“Recently, there has been a lot of heartbreaking and frightening news about school safety. School is a place to think and be safe. The thought that someone can just walk into my classroom and take my life away is terrifying. My father says, ‘We can’t predict the future, all we can do is be best prepared for uncertain events.’ No one has a crystal ball that can tell us if a bad person is coming to our school. But knowing that Hardwire is providing my classmates and I with the protection that may someday save our lives is a huge relief.”

Some schools are buying.

In comparison to the 1 in 4.5 million risk that a child will be killed in school during a year, in any year 1 out of 60 thousand schoolchildren aged 5-14 die from heart attacks. If a 1 in 4.5 million risk is enough to place a bulletproof whiteboard in every classroom, is a 1 in 60 thousand risk enough to place a defibrillator in every classroom? Although defibrillators are being bought by schools, they’re being placed at the rate of just 1 or 2 per sprawling school, not within arm’s reach of a teacher. Why, when the risk of a student dying from heart disease is 75 times as great as the risk of a student dying from a school shooting? The answer is that we have collectively decided to pay more attention to some childrens’ deaths than others. Measured in terms of our focus on the issue in the media and measured in terms of our efforts to implement a solution, the death of a child from a shooting is more socially meaningful to us than the death of a child from a heart attack.

Even if we ignore other causes of child deaths and limit ourselves to child murders, we can still ask why school shootings attract as much attention as they do. After all, children are killed in much greater numbers in other contexts. Indeed, as the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ recent report shows, only 8 out of every 1,000 child murders occur in the context of school:

Where are children typically killed? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathers information on child homicides from 17 states in the U.S. using its National Violent Death Reporting System, and the results can be browsed suing the CDC’s Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (also known as WISQARS). During the last year for which data is available (2011), the following are the places where children were murdered:

Place of Injury Percentage
All 100.00%
House, apartment, including driveway, porch, yard 47.32%
Residential institution, including shelter, prison <3%
Transport area: public highway, street or road 27.13%
Transport area: other, including inside motor vehicle 8.52%
Recreational area, cultural area or public building <3%
Commercial area (non-recreational), including medical service area, farm, industrial or construction area 3.47%
Natural area/countryside 4.42%
Other specified place, including school, sports or athletics area 3.47%
Unknown 3.47%


If nearly half of all murders of children take place inside the home (many times more than take place in school), then shall we invest in bulletproof doors or suffocation-safe pillows? If more than a quarter of the murders of children occur on the street, then mightn’t we consider detachable bulletproof street signs as a security option?  Such solutions sound absurd to our ears, but these absurdities are an artifact of how we define the situation: if we were strictly interested in preventing the greatest number of child murders, we might want to consider in-home or on-street changes much more seriously than we consider in-school changes.  The fact that we devote our concern to security in schools despite the relative safety of schools tells us that our concern is a consequence of the way we construct social reality and the stories we tell about danger.  The stories we tell, based on our out-of-proportion beliefs, have real consequences: as teachers hoist bulletproof whiteboards in their classrooms, children die in their homes.