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After 2 years of increases, the US murder rate officially fell in 2017

The FBI’s new report on crime has good news across the board.

A New York City police officer.
Police in Times Square.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The FBI’s official numbers for crime and murder are out for 2017 — and there’s good news across the board.

According to new FBI data, the violent crime and murder rates fell in 2017, the first time there was a drop in both categories since 2014.

The murder rate fell from 5.4 per 100,000 people in 2016 to 5.3 per 100,000 in 2017 — a nearly 2 percent drop. The rate had spiked by more than 22 percent in 2015 and 2016, from a historic low of 4.4 per 100,000 in 2014 to 5.4 per 100,000 in 2016. The drop in 2017 didn’t totally reverse the increases of the previous couple of years, but it at least shows things stabilizing.

The violent crime rate, meanwhile, fell by almost 1 percent in 2017, from 386.6 per 100,000 people in 2016 to 382.9 per 100,000 in 2017. Again, that’s after increases in 2015 and 2016: The violent crime rate had increased by nearly 7 percent during those years, from 361.6 per 100,000 in 2014 to 386.6 in 2016. (The violent crime rate combines murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.)

The property crime rate continued its steady decline in 2017, dropping from 2,451.6 per 100,000 people in 2016 to 2,362.2 in 2017. The property crime rate, unlike the violent crime and murder rates, did not increase in 2015 or 2016.

In general, crime and murder rates have been dropping in the US for decades, following big crime and murder increases in the 1960s through the 1990s. The rises in 2015 and 2016 led some criminal justice experts to worry that the decades-long trends may be reversing. But the 2017 numbers, at least, suggest the recent increases have stopped.

We don’t have the FBI’s official numbers for 2018 yet. But preliminary data from the Brennan Center for Justice, an advocacy group, projected that crime and murder rates have dropped in the 30 largest cities in the US. Previous reports on big cities from Brennan also predicted a drop in crime and murder in 2017.

Now, we will need more years of data to truly know that the crime and murder trends are no longer heading in a bad direction. But at least for now, the data has good news for America.

Murders may not be on the rise after all

Murder increases got a lot of attention in 2015 and 2016, 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 single-handedly 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 Center 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, other experts, and advocates cautioned that it was 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,” Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center, told me, “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 destructive event 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.

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