Heather Mac Donald’s piece in this weekend’s WSJ tries to scare American’s nationwide with the claim: “Gun violence in particular is spiraling upward in cities across America.” Her piece starts this way:
The nation’s two-decades-long crime decline may be over. Gun violence in particular is spiraling upward in cities across America. In Baltimore, the most pressing question every morning is how many people were shot the previous night. Gun violence is up more than 60% compared with this time last year, according to Baltimore police, with 32 shootings over Memorial Day weekend. May has been the most violent month the city has seen in 15 years.
In Milwaukee, homicides were up 180% by May 17 over the same period the previous year. Through April, shootings in St. Louis were up 39%, robberies 43%, and homicides 25%. “Crime is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said St. Louis Alderman Joe Vacarro at a May 7 City Hall hearing.
Murders in Atlanta were up 32% as of mid-May. Shootings in Chicago had increased 24% and homicides 17%. Shootings and other violent felonies in Los Angeles had spiked by 25%; in New York, murder was up nearly 13%, and gun violence 7%. . . .
It seems like every few years we have had the claim that murder rates are headed back up. In March 2012, the Wall Street Journal had this headline: “Cities See Murder Slide End.” Mac Donald’s claim is possibly more inflammatory, it appears to be less accurate. Her data involves cherry picking the most extreme examples from the 40 largest cities. Here is the murder data for the 15 largest cities.
. Population Murder
. 2014 . 2015 2014 Comparison from
. Los Angeles (County) 190 238 May 29th
3 Chicago Illinois 2,722,389 159 145 May 29th
4 Houston Texas 2,239,558 23 12 March 31st
5 Philadelphia Pennsylvania 1,560,297 96 92 May 30th
6 Phoenix Arizona 1,537,058 48 48 May 10th
7 San Antonio Texas 1,436,697 24 32 May 10th
8 San Diego California 1,381,069 20 21 April 30th
9 Dallas Texas 1,281,047 30 30 May 10th
10 San Jose California 1,015,785 7 17 May 29th
11 Austin Texas 912,791 6 5 May 10th
12 Jacksonville Florida 853,382 20 29 March 31st
13 San Francisco California 852,469 21 9 May 29th
14 Indianapolis Indiana 848,788 43 60 May 25th
15 Columbus Ohio 835,957 26 31 May 10th
Other data is available here.
Depending upon whether one looks at the city or county data for Los Angeles’ murders, the bottom line is that across the largest 15 cities in the US the murder rate has fallen by by 12 from 749 to 737 (a 2% drop) or from 43 from 871 to 828 (a 5% drop). It is very concerning that she reports murder rates for five of the cities where murder rates have gone up and doesn’t mention the murder rate for the one city that she reports where it fell. Equally concerning, the six cities that she reports appear to be have most extreme increases of the 40 largest US cities that she uses to select data from. It seems pretty likely that the reason MacDonald left out murders only for Los Angeles when she included it for all the other five cities that she discussed is that their city murder rate had fallen by 15%.
Mac Donald’s claim about the surge in police deaths is also extremely misleading: “Murders of officers jumped 89% in 2014, to 51 from 27.” While it is true that the number did jump from 27 to 51, the real issue was how unusually low the number for 2013 was. There was no year back to at least 1961 with as few felonious police deaths, though there were obviously many fewer police back then. In 2011 and 2012, there were respectively 72 and 49 felonious police deaths. The number for 2014 really just returned the number back to what it was in 2012.
But the biggest problem is that these numbers is that Baltimore riots didn’t occur until this year, after the supposed 2014 spike in police killings. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, through May, murders of police are down 38% this year compared to the same period in 2014 (16 versus 26).
UPDATE: Heather MacDonald continues to make claims about the supposed explosion in national crime rates. Here she is on Fox & Friends and also Sean Hannity’s show, and nowhere does she make it clear that murder and other violent crimes are not up nationwide. Even if she were to claim now that this increase is just occurring in places that have put additional pressure on police, she hasn’t shown that.
Here she is on the Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal. At least here she mentions that it isn’t going up in all cities, but she still implies that it is still on net going up.
Here she is again about the claim on CNN. They summarize her claim about crime spiking and she does not correct the claim.
In a piece for the NY Times website on Thursday, June 4th, Heather Mac Donald scaled back her comment to read: “Violence is rising in many cities across the country.” But again she offers no direct evidence that police reducing their efforts can explain the increases in the four cities that she focuses on.
“One possible explanation is that officers have become reluctant to engage in proactive policing because of the vitriol they have faced over the last nine months, a hypothesis based on interviews with officers, the observations of commanders, and past experience.”
“In New York, arrests are down 17.4 percent through May 31 compared to the same period last year.”
But she fails to note that while arrests are down in NYC, that overall crime is also down by about 7% in NYC and that might help explain why arrests are down. Indeed, while murder and rape are up, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto are all down.
A lot of conservatives have picked up on this. For example, Breitbart.com that had this headline: “‘FERGUSON EFFECT’: AMERICA’S NEW CRIME WAVE IS ALL PART OF THE PLAN.” Michael Barone writes about Mac Donald’s claim in the New York Post.
UPDATE: The CPRC discussion here has been reported by some on the left. For example, the Huffington Post had this:
But perhaps the most important thing to note here is that it’s just silly to hold out a handful of examples of cities, each with the odd statistical spike in a crime rate or two as proof of some sort of national trend. It’s a chasm traversed by a rickety bridge laden with red flags, sufficient to make me wonder if, say, the homicide rate in America’s cities is truly spiking. Fortunately, John R. Lott of the Crime Prevention Research Center got to this already: . . .
As Lott reports: “The bottom line is that across the largest 15 cities in the US the murder rate has fallen by 43 from 871 to 828, a 5% drop.”
It just goes to show, cherry-picking only works when you’re picking actual cherries. Otherwise, caveat lector.
Another piece in the Huffington Post has this:
Fellow conservative John Lott, Jr., at the Crime Prevention Research Center, disputes MacDonald’s claims. Comparing it to past claims, that also proved false, he says MacDonald’s claim is “possibly more inflammatory” and “appears to be less accurate.” . . .
Rare has this:
. . . While the data paints a sensational picture, the reality is much more nuanced. The Crime Prevention Research Center compared the 2014 and 2015 murder rate from January to May in major US cities. Their conclusion? “The bottom line is that across the largest 15 cities in the US the murder rate has fallen by 43 from 871 to 828, a 5% drop.”
In short, MacDonald’s article is a classic case of cherry picking data. While there’s no doubt that crime is up in cities like Baltimore, it is also down in others like Los Angeles. The truth is that it’s too early to judge the consequences of the recent pressure on police reform. It won’t be years until we understand the full effects of recent reforms such as that for surplus military gear announced last week. . . .