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Monday, November 30, 2015

New York Times: False Alarms on National Crime Wave

A New York Times editorial last Friday poured cold water on the meme that the increase in murders in a handful of cities is an indication that the nation is in the midst of a national crime wave:
It is true that in many cities, murders in 2015 are on pace to surpass 2014 totals. In a new analysis of murder and crime rates in the country’s 30 largest cities, the Brennan Center for Justice projected that the average murder rate will be 11 percent higher this year than last. New York City, which had 333 murders in 2014, is predicted to have 357 murders by the end of 2015.

While that is troubling, it is not evidence that America has fallen back into a lawless pit of chaos and death. A more meaningful way of looking at data is comparing it with unmistakable longer-term trends: The rate of violent crime, including murder, has been going down for a quarter-century, and is at its lowest in decades. On average, it is half of what it was in 1990, and in some places even lower.

In New York City, for example, the number of murders reached 2,245 in 1990. Even in 2010, the city logged 536 murders, or 50 percent more than this year’s projected total. This long-term decline has been well reported, but increasingly, it is getting overlooked in the rush to identify a new crime wave.

As the Brennan Center analysis shows, overall violent crime — which includes not just murder, but robbery, larceny, assault and burglary — is projected to be 1.5 percent lower in 2015 than 2014. For understandable reasons, murders get the most attention, but they accounted for only 1.2 percent of all violent crime in 2014.

Two lessons emerge from this data. One is that when crime rates are so low, even small changes can appear large. The other is that small sample sizes based on arbitrary time frames are nearly always nonrepresentative.
A couple years ago, a poll found most of the public believed that crime was rising even though the crime rate was at lowss not seen in decades.  Murder always gets top billing in news reports so if there is even just a small increase, it appears worse than it really is.  It's nice to see the Times point to data that contradicts the usual meme in the media.

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