Is Violence on the Rise or Fall in the United States? The Answer Depends on How Much You Squint.
Last week, a comment left here by Ella reacted to Peregrin Wood’s characterization of Radical Islamic Instant Internet Brainwashing Hypnowave stories as an unfounded social panic. Ella claimed that it is right to be afraid, since here in the United States we have become so much more violent over the years:
“Violence, for whatever reason, it becoming accepted as normal in the USA now? How many college students have been gunned down in the past 10 years? How many civilians that are not ever mentioned other than in local media? How many officers that are not mentioned in national media? How many students in the lower grades have come to live in fear because of the shootings and killings in schools in other towns? America is becoming more violent rapidly, but it took years for it to get this way.”
I responded briefly, without citing any sources of information, that this simply wasn’t true.
“America is NOT becoming more violent. It is far LESS violent than in the past, actually. What has soared is the mass media fascination with violence. The scare is all about how people perceive the world, not about the world as it actually is.”
And Ella responded:
“Violence, according to some, is escalating in at least some American cities, over a year ago.
Currently, people in America that have died since January 1, 2015 from: Mass shooting 43; Domestic violence 1102; Murder by gun 8674; Homicide 12,678; Suicide 29,825.”
At that point, I offered to share some broader data, which is why I’m writing this article.
Ella’s earlier quote notes that trends in crime are best observed over long periods, since any one year might be unusually calm or violent but over many years such spikes and dips tend to resolve into trends. It’s a good argument, similar to the call people make about observing climate over long periods of time rather than reacting in a panic to one day’s weather.
So let’s look over a long period of time. I’ve patched together data from the annual Uniform Crime Reports data release called Crime in the United States, specifically Table 1 (national trends from 1995-2014) and Table 8 (city crime rates for a particular year).
Here’s the trend nationally:
Quite clearly, without doubt, violent crime in general and murder in particular (both of which Ella mentions) are on a notable decline.
Ella raises the case of the possibility of particular rises in particular cities during the current year. The New York Times article to which she refers cites Washington DC, New Orleans, St. Louis, Milwaukee and Baltimore as places where there may be spikes of violent crime and murder occurring compared to last year, 2014. I can’t share crime statistics for 2015 for those cities because, well, 2015 isn’t done yet. Besides, it usually takes criminologists about 9 months to tabulate all the data. But even if the perception of crime spikes in these cities compared to 2014 is accurate, against what trend are those spikes occurring? Against the trend of crime over the last 25 years. Let’s look at those trends for the cities Ella refers to (except for St. Louis, which like a handful of other cities has not had its crime data reported consistently in the FBI’s Crime in the United States over the last 25 years):
For violent crime in general, all four cities but Milwaukee have been experiencing a decline in violent crime over the past 25 years. For murder in particular, Washington and New Orleans have experienced sharp declines in recent years, while Baltimore and Milwaukee have experienced a very small declines.
What does this mean? For the nation overall, there clearly has been a decline in reports of violent crime. For three of the four of the cities Ella mentions, violent crime has also been on the decline. For Milwaukee in particular, a spike in violent crime in 2015 would occur against a backdrop of previous rises in violent crime (although not in murder), and would be therefore particularly worrisome. But for the other cities, a violent crime spike compared to 2014, unless staggeringly large, would still represent a decline compared to previous years.
America in general appears to be quite a bit safer than a generation ago. However, if you look hard for particular examples, in particular places, at particular times, and perhaps squint a bit, ignoring the general trend and other particular cases, panic-sustaining fear may be maintained. Be careful not to exercise this maneuver repeatedly, especially within an hour after eating: a painful brain cramp may follow.