The Next Batch of Crime Statistics Won’t Be Much Fun For the Media

Crime trends have been mixed in the last few years, with some crimes increasing (mostly involving violence) and others declining (the majority of property crimes). In spite of the facts, I’ve noted in the past how the media has systematically distorted the reporting of crime statistics to create the impression that crime is spiraling out of control.

If the 2007 patterns observed so far in the largest U.S. cities are any indication, the alarmist media is going to have to work hard to find a way to spin this round of crime statistics into doom and gloom. Of the ten most populous cities, I was able to locate year-to-date crime data for five of them.

New York City reports a 13% decline in homicide, an 11% fall in robbery, and a 7.5% reduction in burglary this year. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and his crew are having a good year as well: homicide is down 20%, robbery 6%, and burglary 2%. The numbers in Chicago are not quite as good: the murder rate is flat, with robbery down 7% and burglary down 2%.

Crime is also down across the board in San Diego, although I do not have exact percentages because the data for 2006 and 2007 were displayed in slightly different forms.

Of the five cities I examined, the only one that partially bucks the trend is Phoenix, which has seen a decline in homicide, but increases in both robbery and burglary.

Will an inventive media be able to use these crime data to scare people into thinking crime is getting worse? Most likely, yes. Never underestimate the creativity of journalists. Indeed, The Economist has already gotten a jump on the rest with an article describing Phoenix as a “crime-ridden mess.”


Rita: Lovely Meter Maid

#31 brings up excellent points. People worry about becoming the victim of violent crime (I know I do, even though I live in an area that is reasonably safe), but really, getting in my car each and every morning is the most risky, most life-threatening thing I'll ever be do. Especially as I live in New Jersey. Good god. Someone needs to make this state safer. The congestion is just miserable. It would make a Saint be inclined to use the 'ole bird. (I think it's NJ's state bird). And most of us are not Saints on the road. NJ drivers: Let's try to reduce all this road-rage horror by developing more tolerance for the difficulties of the road (including all the "lousy drives" which are, of course, never you - or me).:)

David

I have read that one reason that murder rates are falling is that DEATH from violent crime (blunt force trauma, stabbing, gunshot) is less frequent, due is large part to improved care for victims of trauma. The rates of assault with a deadly weapon are stable or increasing, but one's chance of dying from such a wound is growing smaller. This is similar to US Troops' casualty rates in Iraq: the number of dead is relatively small, in part because many soldiers are surviving injuries that in Vietnam would have caused death. I seem to remember reading this in the New England Journal of Medicine, but I am not familiar with the primary data.

It would be great if the Freakonomics writers would address this point, as it seems a classic case of being able to interpret the numerator (number of murders) only when the denominator (number of violent assaults) is taken into account.

Hank

I believe the basic assumption should be considered, which is, that somehow the existing levels of crimes are acceptable. So, if crime is decreasing, the new levels are more acceptable. I don't believe the current levels or the "new" levels are acceptable. Freakonomics should focus on what would be a statistically acceptable crime rate. How can we define that? Now that's an interesting question...

amazed

I'm surprised you guys made this mistake. Crime rates are completely bogus because they're dependent on the municipalities reporting crimes to the FBI. Want to reduce the murder rate? Report it to the FBI as an accidental homicide. Want to reduce burglary? Report it to the FBI as larceny....so on and so forth. A police commission can single handedly reduce the crime rate by not reporting the crime to the FBI, or reporting it as something different.

Mort Young

It may be time to release the crocodiles and alligators throughout the New York subway system, simultaneously allowing UFOs to whiz across the skies of two or three large cities.
After all, this IS the August "silly season"which has been honored by the press fairly religiously in the past.
We can't let terrorists and criminals take over the more interesting inside pages of the serious papers and the front pages of the dumbed-down papers and local TV newscasts.
Wake up, America! Where's your imagination?

Leon Mansfield

I think it'd be interesting to compare those crime numbers with the property values for those cities with a downward trend.

The people who would normally commit the crimes may be leaving the cities by gentrification.

Peter

The author has only looked at year-to-date stats. Isn't it possible that a city could have a year-to-date decrease in murder and increase in robbery and still be a crime ridden mess? Mr. Levitt's logic is wrong because we don't know where Phoenix was starting from. If Baghdad had a slight year-to-date drop in crime, would it not still be a crime ridden mess?

Jim

New Orleans. No exaggeration there.

Tyler Moore

It is interesting that you pick on the Economist, since only two months ago they published an article explaining how crime is falling in the largest US cities, but rising elsewhere. Thus, while your quick check of the crime rates in the ten largest cities may show a decline, it may not be a representative of crime levels nationwide.

Here's a link to the article:
http://www.economist.com/research/backgrounders/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9302881

anon

the spin on crime rates that I think is silly is when government officials try to claim complete responsibility for lowering crime ... as the US population ages, violent crime per capita will almost certainly go down on its own, because there will be proportionally fewer young people to commit such crimes.

Juanito

The Economist got it right about Phoenix. Its piece was reasoned and reflects my feelings about that huge, sprawling city. I live in rural Arizona and avoid even traveling through it.

Dan

If there's a large population increase in these cities (I doubt there has been), even a lower murder rate (usually presented as X murders per 10,000 [or so] people) could present a larger number of murders, which increases the burden on the city. That still doesn't suggest that the city is less safe to live in.

Bill Black

I am a criminologist. My research focuses on white-collar crime. Property crime is not "declining." The property crimes that the government tracks ("index crimes") are declining. The property crimes that the government statistics do not count, principally "control fraud" (frauds in which the person that controls the enterprise uses it as a "weapon" to defraud others) such as Enron and Worldcom, reached all-time highs at the same time that the Department of Justice sent out press releases claiming that property crime had fallen to all time lows. Control frauds (which are not counted) cause losses that dwarf the property crimes that the government tracks (e.g., burglary and vehicle theft). Control fraud in the U.S. reached a modern peak this decade, but not a single newspaper or magazine noted that the DOJ press releases claiming that property crime had declined to new lows were misleading.

Moreover, the dichotomy between "property" crimes and crimes of "violence" is false. Control frauds and corruption kill and maim more people worldwide than do the "index" crimes that the Department of Justice terms "violent."

You are correct that the extraordinary concentration of TV shows and news on violent crimes over the last two decades led many Americans to believe that "index" crimes were surging at a time when they were in fact declining.

Read more...

Aaron

Regarding #49, I would love for Levett to provide some sort of analysis on why crime is rising in small to mid-sized cities. My mid-sized (approx 200,000) city is about to lose the best mayor we've ever had due to the violent crime increase, and I would love to have some insight as to why it's occurring. #49's link mentions ways some cities have combatted crime, but it says nothing about why the increase is occurring elsewhere. My city has a similarly sized police force as it has had in the past. Is it just increased gang activity? That doesn't seem right.

Joe

That Economist piece about Phoenix was ridiculous. "City planners decreed that there should be a light railway linking Phoenix to neighbouring cities such as Scottsdale." Calling Scottsdale a "neighbouring city" of Phoenix may accurately reflect the incorporated tax structure, but from a practical standpoint to Phoenix residents that's like calling Brooklyn a "neighboring city" of Manhattan, and then complaining about how the subway construction between the two boroughs was disruptive.

Liz

As a native Philadelphian currently living in New York, I cannot express how different my impression of crime rates is while in the Big Apple (despite being a teacher in the South Bronx) compared to when I'm back home. Why has no national media outlet covered what is going on in Philadelphia (211 homicides so far this year!) and, apparently, in Baltimore? No matter whether it's more reporting or just more people actually dying from their wounds--the reality is, more young people are dying in brazen shootouts on City streets and no one (not least of all our illustrious mayor) is doing a thing about it. Someone from the mayor's office even when so far as to rationalize that the children of 1980s heroin addicts are maturing and that's what's causing the spike. (In one year. In just a few cities. Please.) Could someone at least posit on the trend?

Nathan W

I wonder if a case could be made in certain municipalities that an increase in violent crime could possibly be a barometer as to the success/progress of a city's gentrification process. Oakland may very well be going to hell fast statistically, but look at how people in San Jose, San Fran and even a lot of the South Bay are living these days as compared to a decade ago. Washington DC has seen a considerable drop in violent crime, whereas there's been a huge bump in homicide in West Baltimore over the last few years as real estate in DC and the better parts of Baltimore have boomed. Could economic development be pushing certain aspects of society upon each other and re-kindling turf wars?

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Tiffanie

I have to agree with #55. While I usually respect articles from the Economist the one on Phoenix disappoints me. Perhaps the author should have spent some more time in the city before writing such an article that to Phoenix locals just seems somewhat absurd.

Lou

What about the figures on Sexual Assault arrest and convictions.. I'll bet they are up since it seems like that is what law enforcement is focusing on. It's easy to get a conviction they need no evidence. Just an accusation can put someone in prison for a long time.