Former Attorney General Eric Holder made a claim at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday that may surprise most Americans: "Despite the fiction and fearmongering you've heard from the other party's nominee, violent crime has gone down since President Obama took office."
Holder was referring to Donald Trump's big speech at the Republican National Convention last Thursday, in which the Republican nominee described a very dangerous America that simply doesn’t exist.
If you listened to Trump, you would think that the US is in a total state of chaos, where murder rates are skyrocketing, police officers are regularly assassinated, and terrorists are constantly killing Americans.
"The first task for our new administration," Trump declared, "will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities."
But if you break down the numbers, Holder is right: Americans are — despite some worrying trends in a few places — safer than they have been in decades.
Americans are safer from violent crime than they were decades ago
Trump has acknowledged that crime has fallen for decades in the US. But in his speech at the Republican convention, he suggested that the trend is now going in the reverse:
Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.
Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They’re up nearly 60 percent in nearby Baltimore. In the president’s hometown of Chicago, more than 2,000 people have been the victim of shootings this year alone. And almost 4,000 have been killed in the Chicago area since he took office.
But America is nowhere close to a full reversal. Even if the murder rate — the most reliable crime statistic, which Trump used as a proxy for crime — rose by 17 percent in 2015, it would remain far below the peaks of the 1970s and '80s and any point in the '90s, based on the FBI Uniform Crime Reports. Americans would still be safer from murder than they were decades ago, with President Barack Obama’s time in office marking the lowest crime and murder rates in the country since at least the 1960s.
Trump is also doing a bit of cherry picking. It’s true that homicides rose by 17 percent in 56 large US cities, and some places — such as Baltimore and Washington, DC — truly were much worse off.
But criminologists who have studied this data, like Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri in St. Louis, say there’s simply no way to know if these increases apply at a national level. The FBI, the sole source of that nationwide data, won’t release the full 2015 crime statistics until later this year. It’s possible that, for whatever reason, most of the largest cities saw spikes but the rest of the country did not.
It’s also impossible to know whether the 2015 increase represents a true shift in the long-term trend. Crime rates tend to ebb and flow from month to month and year to year — for example, in 2005 and 2006, the national murder rate ticked up by about 5 percent before falling down to the lowest point in decades in 2013 and 2014. So to really know whether things are getting worse or better, criminologists look at longer-term trends. And we can’t do that yet.
Trump’s rationale for a possible increase in crime was off, too. He claimed it’s a result of "this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement." But the great majority of policing is based on local and state, not federal, policies, so the Obama administration — or a Trump administration, for that matter — simply couldn’t have that much of an impact.
It’s also plausible, criminologists say, that crime increased in some places in 2015 because distrust in police, not a rollback in law enforcement, led people to feel they can get away with crime. Rosenfeld explained the theory: "There is good sociological and historical evidence that if people lose confidence in the police to protect them, or if they lack trust in the police because they believe the police are harassing them or behaving unfairly, they do tend to take matters into their own hands. So one tends to see preemptive killings and retaliatory shootings go up."
So Trump is misleading not only with statistics but also about some of the drivers of those statistics.
Police officers are safer from on-duty deaths than they were decades ago
Trump suggested that on-duty deaths of police officers are now skyrocketing: "The number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50 percent compared to this point last year." He also said, "Immediately after Dallas, we’ve seen continued threats and violence against our law enforcement officials. Law officers have been shot or killed in recent days in Georgia, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan, and Tennessee. On Sunday, more police were gunned down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Three were killed, and three were very, very badly injured."
But according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, on-duty deaths of police officers are actually down 1 percent in 2016 compared to the same point in 2015. It would take a 120 percent spike to go back to the peaks of on-duty deaths of the 1970s. It’s simply safer to be a cop than it was decades ago.
Still, on-duty deaths by gunfire in particular are up 82 percent — an alarming increase — to 31. But it’s an increase based on a very low base; in comparison, there are 11,000 or so gun homicides each year in the US. Shootings of officers remain, thankfully, rare, falling from a peak of 144 total on-duty gunfire deaths in 1973.
It’s also not clear if any increase we’ve seen so far in 2016 will sustain throughout the rest of the year or beyond. There have been times, like 2007 and 2010, when the total number of on-duty deaths temporarily rose, only to keep falling afterward. Those kinds of temporary blips are why criminologists prefer to look at longer-term trends, which show a consistent drop in on-duty deaths over the past several decades — including during Obama’s time in office.
So Trump is wrong about on-duty deaths of police officers going up; they’re not. And to the extent that there is an increase in on-duty gunfire deaths, it’s possible that it’s just a single bad year, not a new wave of anti-police violence.
Terrorism is on the rise globally, but remains very rare for Americans
The rest of Trump’s speech talks a lot about foreign policy and, specifically, terrorism. The overall tone paints a picture of an America under siege by terrorists.
It is certainly true that terrorism has risen globally over the past several years. In 2015, global deaths from terrorism were at more than 28,000 — up from nearly 16,000 in 2008 and down from nearly 33,000 in 2014, according to a State Department report.
But terrorism remains very rare in the US. According to Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations, terrorists killed fewer than 25 US citizens each year from 2009 to 2015. In comparison, nearly 34,000 Americans died in car crashes, nearly 34,000 died due to gun violence, and more than 47,000 died due to drug overdoses in 2014. And alcohol is linked to about 88,000 deaths each year, and tobacco to more than 480,000.
So as grave as the threat of terrorist groups like ISIS can be sometimes, it’s simply not the case that the US is getting much more dangerous in this regard, either. And when you take these numbers along with the crime figures, it’s clear that Americans are safer than they have been in decades — and the out-of-control, violent country Trump is describing just doesn’t exist.