Is There A Nationwide Increase In Violent Crime?

Richard Berk

The FBI recently released the 2016 crime figures from its Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) system. For the nation as a whole, and for those police departments responding, reported property crime fell by about 2% compared to 2015. There was a similar reduction of about 2.5% from 2014 to 2015. Violent crime was up 3.5% compared to 2015. The previous year increase from 2014 to 2015 was 4%. In 2016, the murder rate was up nearly 8% compared to 2015, a little less than the increase of 10% from 2014 to 2015. Murder, about 1.5% of all violent crime, increased by about 8%, which is a bit smaller increase than for the year before. (About two-thirds of all violent crime is aggravated assault and about a quarter is robbery).

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. There is no evidence of a nationwide problem. Moreover, it makes little sense to talk about national trends in crime because crime is local. For 2016, Chicago, Louisville, and Las Vegas had increases in violent crime. New York and Cincinnati, and Newark had decreases. More important, 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, and often for police officers who patrol them, but cannot properly be extrapolated to an entire city, an entire state, or the country as a whole.

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 and unpredictably. One year cannot be a trend, and it takes at least several years for real trends to be identified. If the long-term crime reduction trends are being reversed, it will take several years to know, and it will be changes driven by particular neighborhoods.