At the presidential debate on Monday, Donald Trump once again described American cities as totally crime-ridden — at one point saying that black and Latino Americans “are living in hell because it’s so dangerous.”
You walk down the street, you get shot. In Chicago, they've had thousands of shootings — thousands since January 1. Thousands of shootings.
And I'm saying, where is this? Is this a war-torn country? What are we doing? And we have to stop the violence, we have to bring back law and order in a place like Chicago, where thousands of people have been killed, thousands over the last number of years. In fact, almost 4,000 have been killed since Barack Obama became president.
Trump’s comments are partially right. It is true that America has more gun violence than other developed countries. And cities are, generally, more dangerous than the rest of America.
But Trump’s suggestion that violent crime has been particularly bad under President Barack Obama’s administration is wrong.
Let’s turn to the data: According to the latest FBI report, the violent crime rate in 2015 increased by 3 percent, the murder rate by 11 percent, rape by 4 percent, aggravated assault by 4 percent, and robbery by less than 1 percent.
But there’s a huge caveat to these statistics: Overall, crime is still down under the Obama administration, continuing a steady decline since the 1990s. The 2015 murder rate, which had the biggest increase in 2015, is still below 2009’s levels, when Obama took office — and at half the rate it was at in 1991. The 2015 violent crime rate is still below the levels of 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, and the nearly four decades preceding those years. The 2015 robbery rate was below the levels of 2013 and more than four decades preceding that year.
And burglary and larceny rates actually dropped — with property crime rates falling to levels lower than any point after 1966.
Any crime increase is, of course, concerning. But we don’t yet know what caused the uptick in violent crimes in 2015. As criminologists told me, it’s possible that this is just a one-off fluctuation in the data. We saw this with the murder rate in 2005 and 2006: The murder rate went up from 5.5 per 100,000 people in 2004 to 5.6 in 2005 and 5.8 in 2006 — before dropping all the way down to 4.4 in 2014. It’s entirely possible that this same thing is happening again. (For more, read my deeper explainer on this topic.)
But to know that, we have to wait a few years to see where the crime trend is really heading. If the increase holds, then criminologists will likely study the issue and come up with all sorts of theories for what, exactly, is going on.
What we know now, though, is that while crime did increase in 2015, it’s still far below the levels of the past few decades. That doesn’t really match Trump’s description of a “hell” in America.