If you keep a close eye on the news, 2018 has probably felt like a nonstop nightmare. But there’s some good news: In major American cities, the crime and murder rates appear to have dropped so far this year.
A new report by the Brennan Center for Justice looks at the murder rates for 29 of the 30 largest cities in the US, as well as the crime rates for 19 of the 30 largest cities. (Data was not available for some cities.) It then used the trends in the year so far to project what the rate will be for the entire year, giving us a preliminary look at crime and murder in 2018.
The murder rate for 2018 is projected to be 7.6 percent lower than 2017, largely thanks to “sharp declines” in “San Francisco (-35.0 percent), Chicago (-23.2 percent), and Baltimore (-20.9 percent),” according to the report.
But some cities, like Washington, DC, and Austin, Texas, are projected to see increases. So there’s some local variation.
The overall crime rate for 2018, meanwhile, is projected to fall by 2.9 percent compared to 2017. “If this estimate holds, this group of cities will experience the lowest crime rate this year since at least 1990,” the report found. (Again, with some local variation.)
This would be the second year of good news, as Brennan’s recent reports have estimated that crime and murder rates also fell in 2017. That stands in contrast to an increase in the murder rates in 2015 and 2016, but reflects a decades-long trend toward less crime and murder in the US.
Brennan has been putting out these reports over the past few years to give a more up-to-date estimate of crime trends. The FBI releases a national report of crime statistics each year, but it typically comes with a big delay; the full report for 2017, for example, still isn’t out yet, although it’s expected to come out any day now.
“We think there is a lot of misinformation on crime and crime rates,” Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center, told me.
“Certain politicians put out all sorts [of claims] on crime that not only tend to alarm the public, but also bring out really bad and unnecessary policy changes,” she added, citing mass incarceration and an immigration crackdown. “Before we’re even having those policy debates about what needs to be done to solve the problem, we need to make sure whether there actually is a problem or not.”
Brennan’s numbers are projections, so they might not be completely accurate, and they’ll be updated as the group gets more data. But until we get the FBI’s full national crime data for 2018 in the late summer or fall of next year, the Brennan report is the best we have to go by.
And it’s good news.
Murders may not be on the rise after all
2015 and 2016’s increases in the murder rate got a lot of attention, with President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions often bringing them up in speeches to justify “tough on crime” policies. But before they’ve been able to implement such policies and let them take root (especially in local and state jurisdictions, where federal policymakers have very limited power), these rates appear to be coming down.
“The notion that the Justice Department and the White House singlehandedly control the thousands of police departments that are doing the actual work of combating crime is not exactly fair,” Ames Grawert, one of the Brennan researchers, told me.
Criminologists still aren’t sure why murder in particular appeared to spike so much in 2015 and 2016. Some argued that there might have been a “Ferguson effect,” named after the city in Missouri that exploded into protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown: Due to protests against police brutality over the past few years, police were, the theory goes, scared off from proactive policing, emboldening criminals.
Other experts argued a different kind of Ferguson effect: Widely reported incidents of police brutality and racial disparities in police use of force led to elevated distrust in law enforcement, which makes it much harder for police to solve and prevent crimes.
Yet many criminologists cautioned that it’s also possible 2015 and 2016’s increases were blips in the data, not a new long-term trend. This isn’t unprecedented; in 2005 and 2006, the murder rate in the US increased before continuing its long-term decline — to new record lows — in the ensuing years.
“We’re not even sure if these are actual, real increases and decreases,” Chettiar said, “because the way we’re looking at the data is that 2015 and 2016 were just blips, and then it’s going back down in 2017 and 2018 — which means it’s relatively stable, and crime is bottoming out.”
Since the murder rate in particular is generally low, it’s prone to big statistical fluctuations. As one example, Brennan found that Las Vegas saw a 23.5 percent spike in its murder rate in 2017, but that was due to the mass shooting at a country music concert there that killed 58 people. A single event, albeit a very bad one, led to a dramatic shift in the murder rate.
That’s why criminologists generally demand several years of data before they declare a significant crime trend.
It now looks possible — though we’ll need more years of data to confirm — that 2015 and 2016 were replays of 2005 and 2006. If that holds, then perhaps the US isn’t in the middle of the “American carnage” that Trump has warned about.
For more on what works to combat crime and violence, read Vox’s explainer.