President Donald Trump and the Republican National Convention have characterized America as lawless and chaotic, with crime and violence rising in major cities. Trump has suggested this is a result of Democrats running the cities, arguing that “Democrat run cities are now rampant with crime.” Vice President Mike Pence made the pitch explicit at his RNC speech on Wednesday, saying, “The hard truth is you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
Trump and Pence are right in one sense: One type of violent crime — murder — does seem to be up in large US cities this year compared to 2019. But violent crime is flat, compared to the previous year, and reported property crime is actually down, based on data from crime analyst Jeff Asher.
It’s not clear if this is a nationwide phenomenon, or if it’s isolated to urban centers, because we don’t have good data outside of the large cities.
But it’s not right to blame this exclusively on Democratic-run cities. Murders are also up in Jacksonville and Miami, both of which are overseen by Republican mayors and a Republican governor. And this is all happening under Trump’s presidency. The trend doesn’t appear to be partisan.
So what’s going on?
Some experts have cited the protests over the police killings of George Floyd and others — which could’ve had a range of effects, from officers pulling back from their duties to greater community distrust in police, leading to more unchecked violence. Others point to the bad economy. Another potential factor is a huge increase in gun purchases this year. Still others posit boredom and social displacement as a result of physical distancing leading people to cause more trouble.
Above all, though, experts caution it’s simply been a very unusual year with the Covid-19 pandemic. That makes it difficult to say what, exactly, is happening with crime rates. “The current year, 2020, is an extreme deviation from baseline — extreme,” Tracey Meares, founding director at the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, told me.
That offers a bit of good news: It’s possible that the end of the pandemic will come and homicide rates will fall again, as they generally have for the past few decades in the US. But no one knows for sure if that will happen, or if we’re now seeing a shift in long-term trends.
Uncertainty about what’s going on isn’t exactly new in the field of criminal justice. Rates of crime and violence have plummeted over the past few decades in the US, yet there is no agreed-upon explanation for why. There are theories applying the best evidence, research, and data available, ranging from changes in policing to a drop in lead exposure to the rise of video games. But there’s no consensus.
That a decades-long phenomenon is still so hard to explain shows the need for humility before jumping to conclusions about the current trends.
“We don’t know nearly enough to know what’s going on at the given moment,” Jennifer Doleac, director of the Justice Tech Lab, told me. “The current moment is so unusual for so many different reasons that … it’s really hard to speculate about broad phenomena that are driving these trends when we’re not even sure if there’s a trend yet.”
All of that said, here’s what we do know.
There are several good sources, from criminologists, economists, and other data analysts, for what’s happened with crime and violence so far this year: an analysis by Jeff Asher; a Council on Criminal Justice report written by Richard Rosenfeld and Ernesto Lopez; and City Crime Stats, a website from the University of Pennsylvania set up by David Abrams, Priyanka Goonetilleke, Elizabeth Holmdahl, and Kathy Qian. They all focus on major cities, because we don’t have good data — and likely won’t until 2021’s federal reports — for other places.
Crime analyst Jeff Asher offers the most recent data, looking at violent crime and property crime trends in 25 US cities in 2020 so far compared to 2019. He found murders are up 26 percent, while violent crime is flat and reported property crimes are down. Overall, murder was up in 19 of 25 cities included in his analysis.