Is There A Nationwide Increase In Violent Crime?

Richard Berk

The FBI recently released the 2015 crime figures from its Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) system. Based on information from all of the police departments responding, property crime fell by a little over 2.5% compared to 2014. But, there was an increase from 2014 of nearly 4% in the number of violent crimes. Homicides, which make up about 1.5% of all violent crimes, increased by over 10%. (The majority of violent crimes are assaults.)

Interpreting data such as these can be very tricky. Nevertheless, there have been strong claims that during the past year or two, more than two decades of crime reductions in the United States have been reversed, and that violent crime is now a nationwide problem.

There is no evidence that either claim is true. Crime overall remains near record lows. Although some large cities like Chicago and Las Vegas have had increases in homicides, other large cities like Baltimore and Boston have had decreases. In some large cities, homicides have increased but violent crime overall has declined. In other large cities, it is the reverse.

Moreover, most crime is not a citywide problem. Crime, and especially violent crime, is concentrated in particular neighborhoods and often within certain blocks in those neighborhoods. Violent crime is a tragedy for those neighborhoods, but cannot properly be extrapolated to an entire city, let alone the entire country.

Finally, because violent crime is highly localized, it is affected by factors that are demonstrably situational: arguments that turn violent, robberies “gone bad,” gang disputes over turf, violence within families and many others. These are overlaid on longstanding problems such as poverty and the easy availability of firearms so that the amount of crime from year to year can change dramatically. One year cannot be a trend, and it takes at least several years for real trends to be identified. If the longterm crime reduction trends are being reversed, it will take several years to know, and it will be changes driven by particular neighborhoods, not entire cities or the nation as a whole.