Violent crime is expected to be addressed during the first presidential debate Tuesday, and President Trump has long attacked “Democrat cities” for not doing enough to stop it. In the run-up to the 2018 midterms, he called Democrats the “party of crime.”
Moreover, last week the Department of Justice branded three cities with Democratic leadership (New York City, Portland, and Seattle) as “anarchist” jurisdictions that “have permitted violence and destruction of property to persist.”
A deeper dive into publicly available 2020 crime data paints a more complicated picture than the party-driven explanation President Trump and the Department of Justice have offered. More cities are run by Democratic mayors than by Republican ones, but murder is rising pretty much everywhere, regardless of a mayor’s political party. And it’s worth noting that the Department of Justice refers to “destruction of property” as a reason the three cities are permitting “anarchy,” but the F.B.I. does not classify vandalism as a major crime.
The F.B.I. on Monday reported a tiny decrease (0.2 percent) in the nation’s murder rate in 2019. The U.S. violent crime rate fell slightly for the fourth straight year in this official report, and the property crime rate fell for the 18th straight year, to the lowest level since 1963.
They’re the kind of numbers a president might ordinarily want to brag about, but that is unlikely to happen. A big leap in murders during this pandemic year makes the normalcy of the F.B.I.’s Uniform Crime Report on crime in America in 2019 feel almost jarring — like something from long ago. And President Trump has continued to frame the issue as one of increasing crime in cities run by Democrats.
The F.B.I. recently released information on crime in 2020 through June. Though of limited value because it lacks data on individual cities, it found a nearly 15 percent increase in murder nationally and almost an 8 percent drop in property crime, matching trends I and others found earlier this summer. (The overall violent crime trend appears to be roughly even relative to last year.)
Sampling data from big cities has proved a reliable way of forecasting national trends in crime, and the recent sample shows a jump in murder in cities with Democratic and Republican mayors alike.
Big cities tend to overstate national crime trends, so a smaller rise in murder would be expected nationally, but a 15 percent increase in murders nationally in 2020 would be the largest one-year increase in modern American history in terms of both raw numbers and percent change (reliable data on national murder trends began in 1960).
It’s a stark figure, but for some perspective, even with a rise in murder in 2020 of 15 percent to 20 percent, the nation’s murder rate would be roughly in line with where it was in the mid-2000s and about 40 percent below where it stood 30 years ago.
Murder is up 29 percent in Democrat-led cities in the sample and up 26 percent in cities with a Republican mayor relative to the same time frame in 2019, and five of the 13 cities on pace for record-high murder counts have Republican mayors.
Murder has increased in the three “anarchist jurisdiction” cities singled out by the D.O.J., but both violent and property crime are down relative to 2019 in all three. New York City, Portland and Seattle are on pace to have murder rates roughly at or below the national average in 2020, despite the rises in each city. There has been a sizable increase in gun violence in New York since the start of this summer, but for some wider context, this year’s level of murder and shootings is roughly where it was in 2012. The city is still on pace to have 80 percent fewer murders this year than it did in 1990, when it had over 2,000.
The longer-term outlook for murder in America is unclear. Some of the pandemic-related mental health and economic stresses that may be contributing to this year’s rise in murder could begin to ease in 2021. Some of the mistrust flowing in both directions between the police and the public could start to abate, too. It’s plausible that this year’s sharp murder increase will be a one-year anomaly in many places, but too little is known about what is driving the change to determine an effective policy response.
What is clear is that murder is rising across a wide swath of America — irrespective of ruling political party and of designations of “anarchist” havens — while other types of crime are generally flat or falling.
Jeff Asher is a crime analyst based in New Orleans and co-founder of AH Datalytics. You can follow him on Twitter at @Crimealytics.