Crime and Punishment
Another Double-Digit Homicide Spike

FiveThirtyEight‘s latest tally of murder trends in America’s biggest cities contains some eye-catching data points:

Murder almost certainly increased substantially in the U.S. in 2016, one year after it rose at its fastest pace in a quarter century. […]

This year’s rise appears slightly smaller than last year’s dramatic increase. The big cities experienced roughly a 11.3 percent increase in murder in 2016, which is down from the same group’s 14.8 percent increase from 2014 to 2015. Still, the figures suggest that big cities have seen murder rise by more than a quarter in just two years, likely the biggest two-year increase since 1989 to 1991. […]

In all there were six big cities — Louisville, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; Anchorage, Alaska; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Durham, North Carolina; and Indianapolis — that appear to have set records for highest murder counts in one year dating back to 1960.3 There were also at least 16 big cities that tied or surpassed their worst murder years since the start of 2000 in 2016.

Since Donald Trump started to make the crime uptick a centerpiece of his campaign (often invoking inaccurate or exaggerated data), many journalists and fact-checkers have made a point of noting that Americans are actually safer than they have been for most of the past several decades. And this is true—since the crime wave broke in the mid-1990s, the murder rate has fallen dramatically. Fewer Americans are killed every year now than were when President Obama took office.

But as with most social phenomena, including immigration and the economy, what matters when it comes to public perception of crime is not the absolute level but the rate of change. And the last two years have seen more than a 25 percent increase in the rate of killing, according to FiveThirtyEight data. This is a significant surge, and it’s not surprising that Americans’ concerns about crime and violence are at their highest than at any time since 2001.

While Trump has pushed crime to the center of the public debate, he has offered more bluster than policy proposals for reducing the number of killings. Meanwhile, journalists and experts who should be thinking about policy fixes have been busy scoffing at Trump or declaring concerns about rising murder rates to be a front for bigotry. It’s time for this issue to be taken seriously as a failure of governance—for wonks and policymakers to put the difficult task of crime control at the top of their agenda. And that probably means hiring more cops and detectives and helping police departments build better relationships with the communities they protect.

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