There were more violent crimes—including murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault—in the U.S. in 2015 than in the previous year, according to the F.B.I.’s annual crime report. Violent crime overall rose 3.9% nationally, the report found: murders increased by 10.8%, rapes increased 5.1%, aggravated assault by 4.6%, and robbery by 1.4%.
But those increases still leaves us with crime levels far below the high crimes rates of the 1980s and ’90s and even the early 2000s, according to the F.B.I. data. As Fordham Law School Professor John Pfaff and other criminal justice experts pointed out on Twitter last night, looking at this data in the context of crime rates across several decades, not just the past two or three years, is important if we want to get a better sense of what these figures actually mean:
This is what the overall trend in violent crime looks like since the 1990s:
“Despite all the increases we’ve seen, 2015 was the third safest year since 1970 in terms of violent crime rates,” Pfaff told Fusion. “So yes, things went up and you never want to see crime go up. Obviously each of those murders is a murder that’s awful. But in terms of how should we be reacting to this–if we keep this trend going for five or six years we’re back where we were in 1989 pretty quickly, right, but there’s no reason to assume that’s going to happen.”
The rise in violent crime isn’t isolated to just metropolitan areas, but could be driven by increases in specific regions and parts of major cities, Pfaff said.
The overall increase in murder rates is in line with an uptick of homicide rates in some major cities around the nation last year: an analysis by the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog in January found that on average, homicide rates in major cities increased 17% in 2015 from 2014. Though 36 of the nation’s 50 largest cities experienced some increase in homicides, the rate of those increases varied widely: from 90.5% in Cleveland to 4.5% in New York City. That still left the number of people murdered nationally well below historic highs, the Post wrote:
Public safety has been improving for two decades, and lethal violence in large cities is still rare by historical standards. Twice as many people were killed in those 50 cities in 1991 as in 2015. “You certainly wouldn’t want to say the sky is falling,” said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
And, as Pfaff points out, some of those cities (like Washington, D.C., and in Baltimore, for example) have already seen their homicide rates begin to drop again. And he warns against seeing the F.B.I.’s data as an indication that Americans across the board are in for a rise in violent crime like the nation saw in the late ’80s—a panicked response to the data could lead to law enforcement strategies that perpetuate problems like over-crowded jails and higher rates of recidivism.
“The 2015 numbers are much more concentrated. It’s a much more idiosyncratic story. Whatever’s going on, it’s not a sort of broad national thing, it’s a very localized issue that might require localized responses,” he said.
That’s a perspective on these numbers that’s being backed up by a group called the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, made up of former and current police officials and criminal justice experts.
“As the public conversation around crime and safety continues in tonight’s debate, this new data from the FBI shows crime remains near all-time lows around the country,” Ronal Serpas, former New Orleans police superintendent and chairman of the group, said in a statement. “The numbers do indicate murder has increased in a small number of cities around the country, which must be addressed immediately. Evidence shows that focusing police resources on combatting local violence would help.”
The Crime in the United States report is based on self-reported data from local, county, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement agencies around the country, meaning crime rates could be under-reported. The F.B.I. defines violent crime as murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.
The F.B.I.’s data, released Sunday night in the lead-up to the first presidential debate on Monday evening between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, could be used by both candidates to reinforce their positions on violent crime.
Clinton has said she supports stricter gun control measures, including tougher regulations on who can buy a firearm and an assault weapons ban. In 71.5% of the 15,696 murders recorded nationally last year, a firearm was used, according to the F.B.I. report.
Trump, touting the slogan, “Make American Safe Again,” has said that cities are “rife with crime,” “reaching record levels”:
Presented without the necessary context or without taking into consideration that non-metropolitan areas have also seen a rise in violent crime, Trump could use today’s report to reiterate that message.
“Of the 21 years since murder started going down, it’s gone up seven of those years. This is an unusually big jump, but these crime rates go up and down, and with one year’s increase in murder rates that’s far too early to start talking about trends,” Pfaff said. “One year is not a trend, especially for a data set thats been known to go up and down like this.”