Is the murder rate really at a 47-year high?

And yet the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years, right?  Did you know that?  Forty-seven years.  I used to use that — I’d say that in a speech and everybody was surprised, because the press doesn’t tell it like it is.  It wasn’t to their advantage to say that.  But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, from 45 to 47 years.

President Trump, in a Roundtable with County Sheriffs, made these remarks on February 7, 2017.

But is it true?

In a word…no.  Not even close.

The FBI maintains crime databases, including a handy table-generating tool for crime rates from 1960-2014, which you can feel free to browse yourself.  This isn’t the only crime measurement tool out there, but it’s pretty reliable and objective, and is broadly consistent with the other methodologies out there.

Here’s the short version:  Across the board, violent crime is at historic lows.  The overall violent crime rate, as of 2014, is lower than any other year since 1971.  The homicide rate in 2013 and 2014, at 4.5 per 100,000 people, is lower than any other time since at least 1960.  These trends are essentially true across all categories of violent crime (rape, aggravated assault, robbery), with recent rates at their lowest since the mid-70s or earlier.  To put the homicide numbers in perspective:  In 1980, the homicide rate peaked at 10.2 per 100,000 people, before dropping down to 7.9 by 1984, and in 1991 it peaked again at 9.8.

When you bring in the 2015 numbers, it’s a little less rosy:  The homicide rate is up to 4.9, with modest spikes in other crime areas as well.  And that’s actually a fairly large spike in homicides – about 10.8%.  But 4.9 is only bad by comparison to the last few years.  Before 2010, the previous time that figure was less than 5 was in 1964.

And there’s the rub.  The statistic to which Trump was likely referring is that it’s the highest increase in murder rate, year-over-year, since 1970-71, when the rate increased from 7.9-8.6.  To characterize it as being the highest murder rate in 47 years, however, is a dramatic misunderstanding and misstatement of that statistic, when the rate itself is still lower than in most of the intervening years, and still less than half the rate in 1980.

The fact that Trump got it wrong, though, is only part of the story.  Perhaps he simply didn’t understand the statistic; perhaps in the above-noted quotation it was a matter of verbal misstatement, where he incorrectly articulated the statistic…twice.  But what really brings the misstatement into the purview of the Cult of Ignorance is the fact that he’s contending that there’s a media conspiracy to suppress the scope of the crime problem.  If the murder rate really were the highest in 47 years, and the media weren’t reporting on it, that would signal a major problem within the press.

But the largest increase since 1971…that’s a little more nuanced.

First off, it’s worth highlighting that the ‘largest increase’ factoid is only true in a percentage-based sense:  For instance, in 1989-1990, the homicide rate increased from about 8.7 to 9.4 – a spike of 0.7 per 100,000 people, much larger than the increase from 2014 to 2015, but only about an 8% increase over the existing (higher) base rate.  In turn, this highlights the impact of having such a low rate – that even a relatively modest spike looks pretty dire in percentage terms.

Nonetheless, it’s certainly noteworthy, and in fact the media has reported on it.  (See, for example, this New York Times story from May 2016; this Wall Street Journal piece from December 2016; or this Time story from December 2016, among others.)  But is it a major scandal that should be dominating the front page?  Well, no, certainly not in the way that the highest actual murder ‘rate’ would.

It’s difficult to know what to make of a single-year statistic – it could be an anomaly that’s not indicative of changing trends or patterns.  Or it could signal the start of an upward climb.  So a lot of the coverage is basically trying to figure out what to make of it.  Indeed, when you delve into the media coverage, you find a lot of discussion of the relatively localized nature of these spiking crime stats – that the increase is mostly driven by trends in specific areas (most notably Chicago).

Even taking the factoid at its best – that the 2014-2015 year-over-year increase in the murder rate is, by percentage, the highest since 1971 – it’s clearly not a crisis.  There’s public debate and discourse as to whether and what policy action should be taken to address the spike, and there’s always room for improvement (bearing in mind that even 4.5 was one of the highest rates in the developed world), but ultimately we’re still talking about a homicide rate that’s among the lowest in modern US history, and so the implication that there’s some media agenda to suppress the story fails to recognize the media coverage that is out there and/or overestimates the importance of the story on the whole.

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