After two years of unsettling increases, America’s crime and murder rates seem to be on the decline in 2017.
A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice looked at the crime rates for the 30 largest US cities. For the past two years, Brennan found increases — sometimes sharp rises — in the crime, violent crime, and murder rates. Many feared this was a reversal from the past several decades of crime decreases, which put the 2014 US murder rate in particular at the lowest it’s been since at least the 1960s.
But so far this year, Brennan has some good news. Based on its preliminary analysis for 2017, the overall crime rate is projected to decline by 1.8 percent compared to 2016, the violent crime rate by 0.6 percent, and the murder rate by 2.5 percent.
“The violent crime rate for this year is projected to be about 1 percent above 2014’s violent crime rate, the lowest recorded since 1990,” Brennan reported, primarily due to the stabilization of the violent crime rate in Chicago and a decrease in Washington, DC.
According to Brennan, the murder rate — seen as the most reliable metric for crime, since it’s hard to spoof or overlook a death — in the 30 largest US cities will be around what it was in 2009 and well below historical highs.
Brennan Center for Justice
The past two years’ increases in the murder rate got a lot of attention, with President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions often bringing them up in speeches to justify “tough on crime” policies. But before they’ve been able to implement such policies and let them take root, especially in local and state jurisdictions where federal policymakers have very limited power, these rates appear to be coming down.
Criminologists still aren’t sure why murder in particular appeared to spike so much in 2015 and 2016. Some argued that there might have been a “Ferguson effect,” named after the city that exploded into protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown: Due to protests against police brutality over the past few years, police were, the theory goes, scared off from doing proactive policing, emboldening criminals.
Other experts argued a different kind of Ferguson effect: The demonstrations over police led to elevated distrust in law enforcement, which makes it much harder for police to solve and prevent crimes.
Yet many criminologists cautioned that it’s also possible that the two years’ increases were a blip in the data. This isn’t unprecedented; in 2005 and 2006, the murder rate in the US increased before continuing its long-term decline — to new record lows — in the ensuing years.
Since the murder rate in particular is generally low, it’s prone to large statistical fluctuations. As one example, New Orleans–based crime analyst Jeff Asher previously told me that he expected the 2016 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which 50 died, to lead to a massive increase in the murder rate in the city, even though it was just one particularly horrific event.
That’s why criminologists generally demand several years of data before they declare a significant crime trend.
It now looks possible — though we’ll need more years of data to confirm — that 2015 and 2016 were replays of 2005 and 2006. If that holds, then perhaps the US isn’t in the middle of the “American carnage” that Trump warned about.