On Monday, the FBI released its full crime stats for 2016, which showed violent crime up 4.1 percent in the U.S. over the FBI numbers for 2015.
It was the second year in a row that saw such a jump.
Homicides jumped by a startling 8.6 percent nationally. But property crime fell during the same period with burglaries dropping 4.6 percent, larceny-thefts down 1.5 percent. (Weirdly motor vehicle thefts rose 7.4 percent—although vehicle thefts only accounted for 9.7 percent of all property crimes.)
Yet Monday’s numbers do not tell a simple story.
To put that rise in perspective, even the FBI noted that the 2016 violent crime total was 2.6 percent above the 2012 level and 12.3 percent below the 2007 level.
Moreover, the spike in murders was, in part, driven by a cluster of areas in the city of Chicago, which have seen a rapid rise in 2016 over the previous year, said justice trend expert, John Pfaff, on Monday morning. “If you exclude Chicago, it’s not as big a shift.”
Pfaff, a Professor of Law at Fordham University Law School, was one of several academic and law enforcement figures who took part in a Monday morning conference call about the FBI stats. The call was sponsored by the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School, and Fair and Just Prosecution, a project that supports and inter-connects recently elected leaders of prosecutors’ offices committed to new thinking and innovation.
Meanwhile, over at the Brennan Center for Justice, Brennan counsel, Ames Grawert agreed with Pfaff. “Crime remains near historic lows, with an uptick in murder and violence driven” partially “by problems in some of our nation’s largest cities. At the same time, other cities like New York are keeping crime down.”
Cities like Chicago have “serious issues that need to be addressed,” said Inimai Chettiar, the Brennan Center’s Justice Program’s director. But she cautioned politicians and pundits, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, about “painting the entire country with too broad a brush,” which Chettiar said mostly results in “peddling fear and distracting from the frank and honest conversations needed to find solutions to these real problems.”
The Pew Charitable Trusts quickly compiled some additional numbers to put Monday’s stats in a larger frame:
For example, Pew pointed out that serious crime is at a half-century low. “In 2016,” they wrote, “the combined crime rate, factoring in both violent and property crimes, was at its lowest level since 1966.”
Property crime is at its lowest level in the last fifty years, Pew added. “In 2016, property crime fell 2% over 2015 totals, and is down 25% from 2007. Burglaries in particular are down over 35% from a decade ago.”
As with the nation, California’s violent crime was up. In the state’s case, violent crime rose 4.1 percent over the previous year, with homicides up 3 percent per 100 residents over 2015’s numbers.
As was also true nationally, in California property crimes fell. Overall property crimes were down by 2.9 percent per 100,000 residents, over 2015, with burglary down 5.2 percent, and larceny-thefts down 3.6 percent. Auto theft was again the outlier with a 2.7 percent bounce up.
California’s cities, in general, followed the state’s trends, with some notable exceptions, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.
LA’s crime was up in all major categories, with 28,817 violent crimes reported in 2016, over 2015’s 25,1586. Property crime was similarly up over last year—from 93,503 crimes in 2015, to 99,151 last year. Homicides rose by 11 deaths, from 282 in 2015 to 293 in 2016.
This summer, however, homicides have come down according to Los Angeles Police Department Chief, Charlie Beck.
San Francisco’s was measured down by the FBI, with violent crimes dropping from 6,710 in 2015 to 6,190 in 2016.
SF’s property crimes dropped more dramatically, from 53,019 in 2015 to 47,402 in 2016.
Still, San Francisco’s homicides rose during the same period, from 53 deaths in 2015 to 57 in 2016.
When looked at through a county lens, LA County’s violent crime rose by approximately 1000 crimes, but its murder rate dropped from 98 to 94, and property crime dropped from 17,498 to 16,301.
Sacramento County dropped from 2015 to 2016 in both violent crime (3,117 to 2,797) and property crime (5,527 to 5,235), but its murders rose from 37 to 42.
San Bernardino County’s murder rate dropped from 18 to 12 deaths, its violent crime rose negligibly (from 920 to 924 crimes), and its property crime dropped from 5,527 to 5,235.
Geography and Trends
As Professor Pfaff said above, national homicide increases are mostly concentrated in a small number of neighborhoods in a handful of cities across the county. According to the Vera Institute, “A few jurisdictions – representing 2.8% of the total U.S. population – have recently experienced large increases in homicide rates that were clearly unusual in the context of historical trends and normal fluctuations.” Even within these jurisdictions, said Vera, while the increases are “troubling, it is important to understand that due to natural fluctuations, it typically takes 3-5 years to establish a trend.”
Much attention was paid on Monday to the fact that, in 2016, the nation’s murder rate rose 7.9% last year relative to 2015, but it still is 6% lower than a decade ago, Pew noted. And according to a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice, data from America’s 30 largest cities suggests that both violent crime and homicides specifically are on track to decline in 2017.
So what are the larger philosophic takeaways?
“One of things we know in New York City, and in Brooklyn where I am the District Attorney, is that we cannot arrest and jail our way out of violence,” said Eric Gonzalez, Kings County District Attorney in Brooklyn, New York. (Gonzalez was another of the experts on Monday morning’s conference call.) “We need to invest in communities, invest in services, and hold people accountable while also ensuring that we have the respect and trust of the people we serve.
“So far, in 2017,” Gonzalez continued, “NYC is on pace to have the safest year–the lowest level of violent crime–in modern history.”
Scott Thomson, also on the call, is the Police Chief for Camden County, New Jersey, and had similar things to say about what various municipalities should take away from Monday’s numbers.
“The relationship between the police and the communities they serve is a key element in promoting safer communities,” Chief Thomson said.
“In Camden, we are seeing steep reductions in crime, including in murders. We achieved that, not by putting more cops on the beat or militarizing our neighborhoods, but rather by working with our communities, helping to promote prevention and youth-focused strategies.”
What he learned after the bad old days of hard charging policing in the 1990s, Thompson said, that it “turned out that being smart on crime, and using data-driven solutions, has been so much more effective than being tough on crime. A return to 90s style tough-on-crime approaches might lead us back to 90s level of crime and, worse yet, further polarize our most challenging communities.”
Monday’s data “cannot and should not push us back to failed tough on crime policies of past decades that left too many people locked up for too long, too many families and communities fractured, too many lives lost on our street and in our jails, and too much money spent in prisons rather than investing in prevention.” said former federal prosecutor Miriam Krinsky, who is the Executive Director of Fair and Just Prosecution.
“We know what doesn’t work — just as we know what works. And the good news is that in some of the states that are leading the way in reducing rates of incarceration, we are seeing bigger decreases in crime than in states that have yet to embrace these smarter approaches.”