Why examining U.S. crime rates isn't as straightforward as you might think
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you live in a swing state right now, it is almost impossible to avoid midterm campaign ads. And a lot of them are focused on crime.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
MARK RONCHETTI: Enough is enough, and I'll never apologize for backing the blue. As governor, I'll go after the criminals, not cops.
VAL DEMINGS: In the Senate, I'll protect Florida from bad ideas like defunding the police. That's just crazy.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: On November 8, vote like your life depends on it. It just might.
MARTIN: Three-quarters of voters, recently polled by Politico and Morning Consult, say violent crime is a major problem in the U.S. But what's actually happening with crime rates across the country isn't so straightforward. Jeff Asher is a data analyst who specializes in crime statistics. He's worked with the Pentagon, the CIA and the New Orleans Police Department, and he joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.
JEFF ASHER: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Are crime rates in America going up?
ASHER: We really don't have a common definition of what crime means when you ask that question.
ASHER: If you're talking about crime with sort of a capital C, as what the FBI measures as the national crime rate, you're talking about seven major types of crime, and the vast majority of them are property crimes. And property crime has been falling regularly for 20 years. This is theft, auto theft and burglary...
MARTIN: Got it.
ASHER: ...Is what makes up property crime?
ASHER: When you talk about violent crime, you're talking about aggravated assault, murder, rape and robbery. That has gone down since the '90s. It increased a little bit in 2020. It probably increased a little bit or was even in 2021. But even that, when we talk about crime, is not what people think of. What they're really thinking of is murder and gun violence. And murder makes up 0.2%, about, of all big-picture crimes every year. But it's really the thing - it's the crime with the most societal harm. It's the thing that people tend to care about the most.
And so when we talk about murder, yes, we've seen a pretty dramatic uptick over the last two-plus years. It went up almost 30% in 2020. It probably was up about 4 or 5% nationally in 2021. And this year, we're probably seeing a 4 to 5% decline relative to 2021. So we're still at this really highly elevated level now compared to where we were in 2019. Now, if we go back to the '90s, we're still down significantly 30 or 40%, but we're much higher than we were three or four years ago.
MARTIN: And like you said, there's a different emotional component to people's perception of murder rates. Even if it hasn't affected them, a small uptick can create an elevated sense that things are scarier everywhere.
ASHER: And I think that what has given it so much potency in the midterms is that the increase in murder in 2020 really was a national phenomenon. It happened in big cities. It happened in small cities. It happened in counties that voted for Trump. It happened in counties that voted for Biden. It was really everywhere. And so I think that most places in America are grappling with at least some increase in gun violence over the last two years, which brings it to the forefront of these elections as they're taking place now.
MARTIN: How reliable is the data? I mean, is it hard to get cities, municipalities, counties to hand this information over, make it public?
ASHER: So it's both reliable and unreliable. At a city level, for most big cities, they tend to produce it in a way that is obtainable in some format in near real time - talking about in the last couple of weeks or the last couple of months or the last quarter. When you're talking about smaller places - small cities, suburbs, sheriffs' offices - it gets a lot harder to get the data. And then when you're talking about what the FBI collects - the 18,000 law enforcement agencies reporting to the FBI every year, the FBI collects it and it reports it 10 months after the fact. So it's really difficult to get national-level estimates in any sort of time frame where you can understand these trends as they're happening. And we've really got this change in murder, which almost happened overnight and has been sustained for two years, and we're not able to measure progress against it or regression against it because at this really inopportune moment, our data collection has suddenly gotten much worse.
MARTIN: What are the broader societal consequences of not having reliable data on crime rates, especially heading into national elections?
ASHER: Well, you get lots of discussions about X crime is up and the other candidate says no, X crime is not up. And it's a lot harder to refute that. I get the question a lot about, like, why do we need to be having this data? And this is a problem. It is a problem that we don't fully understand. It's a problem that we don't fully know how to solve, and we're not in a position to be able to even measure it in any type of way that we can get solid understanding of what's happening into the hands of researchers and policymakers so that we can determine what's working, what's not working, what should we be investing in, what should we not be investing in?
MARTIN: This is a little out of your lane, but what do you tell a family member who might come to you and say, Jeff, what do I do? I'm - you know, I'm being inundated with all these ads that are telling me crime is up. I haven't seen evidence of it myself. But now I'm, like, afraid, and it's going to influence my vote. I mean, how do you help people sort through all this messaging right now?
ASHER: I think it's really hard. And if, you know - that's sort of what we do is we try to build tools to evaluate, both at a local and a national level, what's happening. I'm a data analyst, so the response to someone that - you know, if a family member or friend comes to me and asks, you know, I want to know what's happening in this neighborhood or I want to understand what's happening in terms of gun violence in my city, I'm going to send them a chart. Probably not the most effective means of communicating, but it's the way that we understand what's happening and whether or not what's happening is working - is to look at the data behind it. And absent that, we get a lot of politicians that are saying a lot of things that frequently are based on anecdote or sort of the vibes of the moment, and we get, then, a lot of misinformation and poor decisions being made in the name of dataless (ph) arguments.
MARTIN: Jeff Asher is the co-founder of AH Datalytics. We so appreciate your time. Thank you.
ASHER: Thank you for having me.
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