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September 19, 2016

Brennan Center releases new report to contend "crime rates in 2016 are projected to be nearly the same as last year, with crime remaining at an all-time low"

Via this website, I see that the Brennan Center for Justice has released this important new report headlined "Crime in 2016: A Preliminary Analysis." Interestingly, the first summary description of the report strikes a very positive note: "Overall crime rates in 2016 are projected to be nearly the same as last year, with crime remaining at an all-time low, according to a new Brennan Center analysis."  But a review of the report's executive summary is much more nuanced and sobering, as in includes these data points and explanation: This report ... collects midyear data from police departments to project overall crime, violent crime, and murder for all of 2016.  Its principal findings are:

  • Crime:  Crime overall in 2016 is projected to remain the same as in 2015, rising by 1.3 percent.  Twelve cities are expected to see drops in crime. These decreases are offset by Chicago (rising 9.1 percent) and Charlotte (17.5 percent).  Nationally, crime remains at an all-time low.

  • Violence: Violent crime is projected to rise slightly, by 5.5 percent, with half the increase driven by Los Angeles (up 17 percent) and Chicago (up 16 percent). Even so, violent crime remains near the bottom of the nation’s 30-year downward trend.

  • Murder: Murder is projected to rise by 13.1 percent this year, with nearly half of this increase attributable to Chicago alone (234 of 496 murders). Significantly, other cities that drove the national murder increase in 2015 are projected to see significant decreases in 2016. Those cities include Baltimore (down 9.9 percent) and Washington, D.C. (down 10.9 percent). New York remains one of the safest large cities, even with murder projected to rise 2.1 percent this year.

Nationally, the murder rate is projected to increase 31.5 percent from 2014 to 2016 — with half of additional murders attributable to Baltimore, Chicago, and Houston. Since homicide rates remain low nationwide, percentage increases may overstate relatively small increases.  In San Jose, for example, just 21 new murders translated to an increase of 70.6 percent. Based on this data, the authors conclude there is no evidence of a national murder wave, yet increases in these select cities are indeed a serious problem.

  • Chicago Is An Outlier: Crime rose significantly in Chicago this year and last. No other large city is expected to see a comparable increase in violence. The causes are still unclear, but some theories include higher concentrations of poverty, increased gang activity, and fewer police officers.

  • Explanations for Overall Trends: Very few cities are projected to see crime rise uniformly this year, and only Chicago will see significant, back-to-back increases in both violent crime and murder. The authors attempted to investigate causes of these spikes, but ultimately were unable to draw conclusions due to lack of data.  Based on their research, however, the authors believe cities with long-term socioeconomic problems (high poverty, unemployment, and racial segregation) are more prone to short-term spikes in crime. Because the pattern across cities is not uniform, the authors believe these spikes are created by as-of-yet unidentified local factors, rather than any sort of national characteristic. Further, it is normal for crime to fluctuate from year-to-year. The increases and decreases in most cities’ murder rates in 2015 and 2016, for example, are within the range of previous two-year fluctuations, meaning they may be normal short-term variations.

These findings undercut media reports referring to crime as “out of control,” or heralding a new nationwide crime wave. But the data do call attention to specific cities, especially Chicago, and an urgent need to address violence there. Notably, this analysis focuses on major cities, where increases in crime and murder were highest in preliminary Uniform Crime Reporting data for 2015, so this report likely overestimates any national rise in crime. It also represents a projection based on data available through early September 2016.

I fully appreciate the considerable importance and enduring challenge of collecting and reporting on crime data accurately.  But, with all due respect to the work of the fine folks at the Brennan Center, I am troubled that this report seems presented in a way that tries to downplay a number of disconcerting numbers.  For starters, a 1+% increase in overall crime is a slight increase, not crime "remaining the same."  Moreover, I do not think it fair to assert that crime "remains at an all-time low" just after reporting it is going up a little bit.  Similarly, a 5+% increase in violent crime strikes me as a notable increase, not just a "slight" one.  And finally, the fact that murder is projected to be up another 13+% in 2016 after a significant spike up in 2015 does, at least in my view, lend credence to at least the claim that the US in now in the midst of a "new nationwide [homicide] crime wave."

September 19, 2016 at 11:59 AM | Permalink


Your definition of "nationwide" is an odd one given the facts of this report. Most folks would equate "nationwide" with a generalized and evenly distributed set of data, which is exactly opposite of that exposed in the report. Similarly, to try to get folks worked up over an annual spike which is within the fluctuation range seen in recent years is being statistically illiterate.

Posted by: peter | Sep 19, 2016 3:37:34 PM

Well, peter, when you look at the actual data on murders in Table 2, we see increases in murder rates in 17 of the 22 cities with reported data (8 cities had data unavailable), and the cities with notable homicide spikes ranged from Philly to Dallas to San Francisco to Seattle to Boston to Nashville to Las Vegas (not to mention Chicago). This seems like a nationwide problem, though I will readily agree that the problem is not evenly distributed among major cities.

In addition, I am not trying to get "folks worked up" over something that is statistically insignificant -- rather I am seeking to note that suggesting there is little to see/note here fails to deal with distressing reality that violent crime and especially murder continue to be going up significantly in 2016 even after they went up a significant amount in late 2014 and through all of 2015.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 19, 2016 5:00:14 PM

Is it evenly distributed between highly urbanized areas and suburban and even rural areas? Large cities are not the entirety of the nation.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 20, 2016 1:28:40 AM

Because this report, Soronel, looks only at 50 largest cities in US, it can only make conclusions based on reports from those cities. I share your interest in getting more data from other regions, but there is a long time-lag before we will get true nationwide crime data from official govt sources like the FBI.

Posted by: Doug B. | Sep 20, 2016 7:26:10 AM

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