The Atlantic Monthly, using the work of crime statistician Jeff Asher, have been publishing articles recently putting forth the idea that 2023 homicide statistics indicate that the United States is experiencing the lowest crime rates in “50 years.”
On January 19th, Rogé Karma boldly wrote in an article entitled “The Great Normalization” that “last year, the crime and inflation crises largely evaporated”.
Of inflation, he forgets or is unaware that American food prices remain stubbornly high. December 2023 prices are up 2.7 percent over 2022, which was the highest year of food prices in a decade. But that’s a story for another writer at another time.
What is far more concerning is that Karma’s declaration that crime has “normalized.” This implies that whatever the 2023 crime statistics are, any crime rate is somehow “normal.” It’s essentially a declaration of victory – despite ongoing victimizations in the millions.
In another piece called “America’s Peace Wave,” David A. Graham posits that Americans are unfairly influenced by media characterizations of rampant crime that are not supported by – you guessed it – Jeff Asher’s (and the FBI’s) statistics.
The old adage is that if it bleeds, it leads: Lurid stories attract press coverage. More positive stories, such as the absence of crimes, are less likely to receive attention. This is bad news, so to speak, because mistaken impressions about how much crime is going on can lead policy makers and the public to embrace hasty or poorly considered policies, some of them with serious negative side effects.
One wonders if he felt the same about wall-to-wall coverage of the George Floyd killing and half a dozen other highly controversial cases of police use of force.
Based on that phenomenon, David Brooks infamously wrote in The Atlantic in 2020 that “The Culture of Policing is Broken.”
This is despite the fact that independent police auditors and inspectors general around the country have not been able to substantiate nationwide and systemic racism nor an increase in shootings of black suspects by the police, which is actually declining. And the decline began before the George Floyd incident and subsequent BLM protests. A recently published study by researchers at Stetson University said the same, as did a 2017 Harvard study, and a 2019 Michigan State Study. From 2019 to 2023 fatal shootings of black suspects by the police has declined every year from 251 to 213. A five-year decline of 15 percent.
The writers for The Atlantic, whose offices are in Washington DC, must work remotely. They’d be wise to look in their own backyard for a first-hand view of today’s crime epidemic. Because even Jeff Asher’s YTD Murder Tracker shows a 36.32 percent increase in the number of murders in the District of Columbia.
Which brings me to crime statistics.
Asher’s “Murder Tracker” is a valuable tool because it provides almost real time murder statistics in cities where about half of the murders in 2022 occurred. Asher has bypassed the FBI’s painfully slow process of collecting crime data and even slower publication process by mining data directly from police departments who post crime statistics on public dashboards. This is a valuable highly accurate tool that includes data on homicides either reported as they occur or are discovered to a near 100 percent accuracy.
What the writers at The Atlantic are not writing about are unreported crimes – specifically the gap between reported and unreported crime that criminologists have ominously entitled the “dark figure.”
We know the dark figure exists because the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducts an annual study known at the National Crime Victimization Survey. In their own words:
The BJS National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is the nation’s primary source of information on criminal victimization. Each year, data are obtained from a nationally representative sample of about 240,000 persons in about 150,000 households. Persons are interviewed on the frequency, characteristics, and consequences of criminal victimization in the United States.
Based on those results Asher, Karma, and Graham, are both completely right – and quite probably wrong. Murders in 2023 may be down (we don’t know how much yet). Asher and others are also pointing to the FBI NIBRS statistics which indicate a drop in reported crime.
Yet none acknowledge either the gap nor the widening increase.
In addition, the gap between reported and unreported crime is widening. In 2021, the rate of violent victimization reported to the police was 7.5 per 1000 and in 2022 that number increased to 9.7 per 1000. But the most concerning figures are the unreported victimizations which in 2021 were 8.7 per 1000. In 2022, they increased to 13.2 per 1000, a figure that is reflected as an increase but shows a decline in reporting victimizations of 34 percent. So, while reporting improved, unreported crime increased by a higher percentage.
Put another way there were 4,598,310 violent crime victims in 2021 and in 2022 that number increased to 6,624,950, an increase of 44 percent.
Are murders an accurate barometer of overall crime rates? Definitely not.
This is a dire indicator on many levels as it means that for a variety of reasons, crime victims are opting out of participating in the criminal justice system beyond their willingness to participate in surveys. This is not “normal” or a “peace wave” – but a concerning reality that people are losing faith in their country’s system of justice.
Like any rider on the London Underground knows, when stepping aboard a train it’s important to “mind the gap.” Writers, statisticians, and most of all our political leadership need to remember it as well.
Steve Smith is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute, focusing on crime, and is the author of the recent PRI study on California’s crime problem, “Paradise Lost.”