US Violent Crime and Murder Down After Two Years of Increases, FBI Data Shows

Murder rate drops slightly and violent crime rate also down but nearly 3,000 more Americans were murdered in 2017 than in 2013.

by Lois Beckett
The Guardian
September 24, 2018

Violent crime and murder decreased slightly in the US in 2017 after two years of increases, according to new FBI data. The murder rate, of 5.3 per 100,000 residents, dropped from 5.4 last year. It remains about half what it was during the violent crime wave of the early 1990s. The estimated violent crime rate fell 0.9% compared with last year.

These very slight decreases are not enough to return the US to the record low violence levels of the middle years of the Obama presidency. Nearly 3,000 more Americans were murdered in 2017 than in 2013, driving a murder rate about 17% higher than five years ago. About 73% of US murders are committed with guns, a proportion that has increased in recent years.

The new FBI data marks an end to two years of sharp increases in US murder numbers that Donald Trump and his allies had used to argue for a return to punitive, tough-on-crime policies. During his campaign, Trump seized on a 10.8% increase in total murders in 2015, the biggest single-year jump since the early 1970s.

Both Trump’s campaign and presidency have been marked by false and distorted claims about crime data, fearmongering about violent crime and a xenophobic focus on murders committed by Latin American immigrants. Minutes after he was sworn in as Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions called the murder increase a “dangerous permanent trend”.

“I wish the rise that we’re seeing in crime in America today were some sort of aberration or a blip,” Sessions told reporters. “My best judgment, having been involved in criminal law enforcement for many years, is that this is a dangerous permanent trend.” Sessions used the crime data as justification for a reinvigorated “war on drugs”.

Criminologists cautioned that there was “no evidence” to label the murder increases a “permanent” trend and argued that the US had seen temporary upticks in murders before, prompting hysterical analysis before murders again began to fall.

A justice department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Sessions on the new data.

“You lost 50lb. You gained back a couple. You’re not fat,” Jeffrey Butts, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said in 2016, in response to the 2015 uptick. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look at your behavior, because the trend is not good.”

The 2015 and 2016 murder increases, which were driven in part by large spikes in murder in Chicago and Baltimore, fueled a partisan debate over whether police violence towards unarmed African Americans, or widespread protests against police violence and “demonization” of the law enforcement, might have led to an increase in community violence.

Some police reform activists said the debate over this so-called “Ferguson effect” was in fact “a reactionary attempt to undermine the movement”. Trump and Sessions, without evidence, blamed Obama-era policies for the increase in murders. “I have a message for all of you,” Trump told Republicans as he accepted his party’s nomination in 2016. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on [my inauguration day], safety will be restored.”

Experts say that all claims linking national crime data to any federal policy should be viewed with suspicion.
The White House and the justice department have little direct control the response to local crime and policy. Most criminal justice policy is set at the state and local level, by state and local authorities including mayors and police chiefs and the majority of the 2.3 million people incarcerated in America are in state prisons or local jails.
Crime and violence trends are complex and deeply local; experts say national totals often distort a much messier and more contradictory picture on the ground.

[ read the article at The Guardian ]

About 73% of US murders are committed with guns, a proportion that has increased in recent years. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images.