This appeared in Saturday’s Washington Post.
President Donald Trump rode a claim of out-of-control crime — to be fought with “law and order” — to victory in 2016. He reinforced the message in his inaugural address about “American carnage.” So it’s no surprise that Attorney General Jeff Sessions harps on the same theme, most recently on Wednesday, when he issued a statement describing this as a “time of rising violent crime [and] a staggering increase in homicides.” As the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, Sessions can and should use his bully pulpit to raise justified concern about crime and violence; his latest remarks, however, constituted a misuse of that power. Currently available data do not support his alarmism.
The most recent FBI national crime reports do indeed show that both murder and violent offenses generally rose in 2015 and 2016. The murder rate had risen from at least a 54-year low of 4.4 per 100,000 people in 2014 to 5.3 at the end of 2016. This reversal of a long and positive trend in American society cries out for thoughtful analysis and response. We’re still waiting for the 2017 FBI data, which won’t be out until later this year.
Meanwhile, private sources have been crunching the 2017 numbers reported by the police of the largest cities — generally indicative of the national total, since homicide is overwhelmingly an urban phenomenon. The basic picture is that homicide probably dipped slightly last year. Through Dec. 16, the total number of homicides in the nation’s 30 largest cities was 4.4 percent below what it was at the same point in 2016, according to the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice. The Brennan Center is a liberal nonprofit that frequently criticizes the Trump administration, but its numbers come from police agencies and city reports, and its findings agree with those of independent crime analyst Jeff Asher of FiveThirtyEight. His study of public data from 54 cities with 250,000 or more residents showed that murder is down 2.75 percent over 2016.
Sessions’ dire portrayal may apply to Charlotte, North Carolina, San Francisco, California, or Columbus, Ohio, which recorded double-digit percentage increases in homicide in 2017. And perhaps those are the numbers that were going through his mind on Wednesday. Still, why emphasize those over the numerous good news stories: Houston (down 27 percent), Detroit (down 11 percent) and the District (down 15 percent)? Even Chicago, scene of a horrific increase in shooting deaths in recent years, turned an early-year upward trendinto a 13 percent end-of-year decrease in overall murders, from 765 to 664. That is still far too many, but obviously Mayor Rahm Emanuel, D, his citizenry and the Chicago police are doing something right.
Sessions’ statement came in the context of his announcement of new interim U.S. attorneys, including for Manhattan and Brooklyn. Yet the nation’s largest city recorded only 290 homicides in 2017 — a decline of nearly 90 percent over the past quarter century. Sessions could just as easily have taken the opportunity to send the Big Apple and the other improving cities his congratulations.