Experts: Murder Rate Appears to Have Stopped Rising

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The grim hellscape of “American carnage” that Trump has long promoted may have lost its main empirical underpinning. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

In retrospect, it’s amazing how much hysterical rhetoric and sudden reversals of federal law enforcement policy have been pegged to a 2015–2016 spike in murder rates in some of America’s major cities. It was central to the whole “crime wave” rhetoric of the Donald Trump candidacy, not to mention his description of big cities as dystopian hellscapes. Trump attacked prison-sentencing reform, protests against police shootings of African-Americans, sanctuary-city policies, and restrictions on racial profiling for unleashing a terrifying spate of violence. Here’s a sampler those who don’t remember:

The dark rhetoric didn’t end with the campaign. The president’s inaugural address featured references to “the American carnage” that “stops right here and stops right now.” Soon, the new attorney general would instruct federal prosecutors to resume pursuit of maximum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. The president himself would encourage police officers to do whatever they felt they needed to do to fight criminals. Sanctuary cities came under renewed attack for allegedly protecting vast numbers of killers.

Throughout this long, deep dive back into the racially saturated “law and order” politics of the 1960s and 1970s, experts warned that Trump and company were distorting murder statistics in an especially gross way, and that to the extent there was a “murder wave” it might represent statistical noise or a temporary uptick — made possible by the fact that homicides were near historic lows.

Now there are growing signs that even the small and distorted segment of the crime statistics used to support all the wild talk is beginning to normalize:

Crime data released Wednesday by the Brennan Center for Justice shows that the long-term downward trend in violent crime in American cities is on track to continue this year.


The Brennan Center’s report indicates that 2017 is on pace to have the second-lowest crime rate since 1990. Violent crime is down 0.6 percent — “about 1 percent above 2014’s violent crime rate, the lowest recorded since 1990” — and the murder rate is projected to be down 2.5 percent. 

That’s right: Even the murder rate is headed down. And even if (as some analysts immediately suggested) the Brennan Center’s methodology for projecting current crime rates isn’t foolproof, this fact remains:

Even after the increase in murders in 2015, the national murder rate remained at about half what it was in 1991.

It’s possible, I suppose, that Trump could belatedly acknowledge these less-than-alarming trends and take credit for them — much as he’s doing with economic indicators that are remarkably similar to those of the last few years of the Obama presidency.

More likely, Trump and Sessions will continue to take every scrap of evidence of adverse crime trends and blow it out of proportion in order to maintain reactionary criminal-justice policies, and also to keep fear of crime high enough to distract voters from other problems and exacerbate racial tensions. Eventually reality will break through, but for older voters nostalgic for the distant past, it’s easy to convince them it’s always 1968.

Experts: Murder Rate Appears to Have Stopped Rising