At the Washington Times: Liberals’ statistics on falling violent crime rates don’t match reality

Jun 24, 2024 | op-ed

Dr. John Lott has a new piece at the Washington Times.

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“It’s no accident that violent crime is near a record 50-year low,” President Biden claims. And if you believe recent fact-checkers at places, like Politifact, rate Biden’s statement as “true.” On ABC’s This Week, when Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) said, “Under Joe Biden, we’ve seen the greatest increase in violent crime in my lifetime,” host Jonathan Karl responded: “Actually senator, as you probably know, the latest stats on violent crime and on the murder rate show they’re actually down this past year.” Other fact checks, such as by USA Today, have attacked Trump for claiming that violent crime is increasing.

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The news media, such as ABC’s Karl, relies almost exclusively on FBI data to report on changes in crime rates. But there is strong evidence that FBI data are less reliable than in the past.

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The U.S. has two different measures of crime. The FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program annually counts the number of crimes reported to police. The Bureau of Justice Statistics, by contrast, uses its annual National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) to ask 240,000 people a year whether they have been victims of a crime. The NCVS is used to estimate total crime (reported and unreported). The survey indicates that only 42% of violent crimes and 32% of property crimes were reported in 2022, the last year the NCVS data is available.

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Since 2020, the FBI’s number of reported crimes and the NCVS’s number of total crimes have gone in opposite directions. For instance, between 2021 and 2022, the FBI reported a 2.1% drop in violent crime, but the NCVS showed an alarming increase of 42.4%— the largest percentage one-year increase in violent crime ever reported by the NCVS. The increase in 2022 over 2020 is slightly greater.

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In saying that Biden’s claim was correct, Politifact declared: “Other types of crime statistics, including the National Crime Victimization Survey, show current levels of violent crime far lower than their peaks in the early 1990s.” But Biden was saying that the violent crime rate was near a 50-year low, not that it was lower than it was in the 1980s. There are many years over the last 50 years where the violent crime data from the NCVS are lower than in 2022. In addition, to say the violent crime rate increased by 42.4% in 2022 seems far from as low as it was in 2021 or in 2020.

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But a more fundamental problem exists for those relying on the FBI data. The FBI’s and NCVS’ estimates of reported crimes have also gone in opposite directions since 2020. From 2008 to 2019, the FBI and NCVS measures of reported violent crimes generally tended to move up and down together. But from 2020 to 2022, these two numbers were almost perfectly negatively related to each other. Each time one measure of reported violent crimes rose, the other measure fell.

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While the FBI’s number of reported violent crimes fell by 2% in 2021 and 2.1% in 2022, the NCVS’s measure showed increases of 13.6% and 29.3%, respectively. 

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It is puzzling enough that measures of reported and total crimes don’t match. But when even these two measures of the same thing – reported crime – are going in opposite directions there are real concerns about the FBI data.

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A frequently discussed concern with the FBI data is the decline in police departments reporting crime, after a new reporting system was used. In 2022, 31% of police departments nationwide, including Los Angeles and New York, didn’t report crime data to the FBI. That is better than 2021 but still much worse than the 97% of agencies covering most of the U.S. reported in 2020. In addition, in cities from Baltimore to Nashville, the FBI is undercounting crimes those jurisdictions reported.

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Still other problems exist. Police departments downgrading crimes can also explain the drop in the FBI numbers. Classifying an aggravated assault as a simple assault means that it will be excluded from FBI violent crime data, which doesn’t include simple assaults. The difference often involves whether the criminal used a weapon in committing an assault, but many radically left-leaning D.A.s are refusing to include weapons charges against defendants. That could explain the difference between the two measures of reported crime because the NCVS will ask victims if the assault involved a weapon, even if the police reports ignore that characteristic of the crime.

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Soros-backed District Attorneys nationwide, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, are downgrading felonies to misdemeanors. Recent numbers show Progressive Manhattan DA downgraded felonies to lesser charges 60% of the time, with 89% of the time they were downgraded to misdemeanors. This isn’t a new problem. In the past, Chicago has intentionally misclassified murders, instead labeling them as subject to non-criminal “death investigations.” But the problem may be increasing, and police may also be responding to the decisions by prosecutors.

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Over the last few years, as the number of police have been reduced due to cuts in budgets and a slew of retirements, police departments nationwide from Charlottesville and Henrico County, Virginia to Chicago, Illinois to Olympia, Washington stopped responding to non-emergency 911 calls. Instead of police coming out, people can still go down to the police station. There is the possibility that people think that calling up 911 reports a crime, but a crime isn’t officially counted until police make out a report. 

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Initial estimates cited by some news organizations show murder rates dropping 13% between 2022 and 2023 and have fallen still further in the first quarter of 2024. These numbers are still estimates. Murders usually are reported, but these initial estimates may be revised and the large number of police departments not reporting this data may affect the FBI’s estimate. But, while Biden and the news media point out that the historically large drop last year, they ignore that 2022’s projected murder rate was still 5.51 per 100,000 people, or 7% above its 2019 level. The NCVS doesn’t measure murders, which make up about 1% of violent crimes.

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The news media relies on reported crime numbers without considering unreported crime. But the gigantic gap between the two measures of reported crimes provides strong doubts about the accuracy of the FBI’s reported crime data. Americans believe that crime is increasing as law enforcement is collapsing. They also say that they are reporting more crimes to the police, but that isn’t showing up in the FBI reports. 

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John R. Lott, Jr., “Liberals’ statistics on falling violent crime rates don’t match reality,” Washington Times, June 24, 2024.

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