May 3, 2024 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Crime is not on the rise. Why do so many Americans think it is?

Democrats are ceding the narrative, writes Claire Bond Potter.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Editor’s note: I’m sending the following to Editorial Board subscribers only. It first appeared in Political Junkie, Claire’s newsletter. –JS

As we approach the 2024 election, crime is all over the media. Sure, it’s the media’s job to report crime. But if you are a devoted listener of 1010-WINS radio (which covers New York, New Jersey and Long Island), you will notice that other than weather and traffic, crime and policing are key aspects of the broadcast. Out of the top six news headlines on the WINS site today, five were violent crimes and the sixth was the ongoing student protest at Columbia. And if there aren’t enough crimes in the New York metropolitan area (oh, for the days of “Headless Body in Topless Bar”), reporters detail unusual and often grisly crimes that have happened hundreds or thousands of miles away. In the past week, the station has reported a gun battle in Louisiana that left three police wounded and one suspect dead; a fugitive former Oregon police officer accused of murder and kidnapping taking his own life; a robbery and carjacking in suburban West Haven, Connecticut.

Given that crime is a staple element of tabloid news, coverage of local tragedies, rather than seeming to occur at a distance, brings the specter of mayhem into communities that experience little or no crime. As Gideon Taffe of Media Matters reported in January 2023, Fox produced “a misleading narrative” about the United States being in the grip of a crime wave in 2022, devoted 11 percent of its reporting to the topic in advance of the midterm election. But that crime wave was “largely created by its own relentless coverage,” Taffe writes. “By focusing on racist stereotypes, smearing progressive prosecutors and pushing conspiracy theories, Fox made crime one of the biggest perceived ailments in the country and pushed far-right policy prescriptions ahead of the election.” 

The only sane policy responses, Fox hosts proclaimed, were those embraced by the Party of Trump. And these “draconian solutions” meant a return to policies forcibly ended in the courts as civil rights violations:

Fox personalities began arguing for a return to “Broken Windows” policing, which involves aggressive enforcement and harsher sentences for lower level crimes. In reality, there is no evidence that this strategy works as a deterrent to reduce crime, and other heavy-handed policing tactics based on the broken windows theory have been found to significantly discriminate against Black Americans and other minority groups

But as Taffe also pointed out, crime in the United States has dramatically decreased — 73 percent, to be precise — over the last thirty years. 2023 saw the biggest national drop in murder rates ever recorded (6 percent) and murders in cities dropped 12 percent. Yes, there are periodic crime spikes. (There was one during the pandemic). But overall, the trend is towards less crime.

The Atlantic’s crime reporter, Jeff Asher, pointed out that less crime doesn’t mean no crime. Yet “declining murder does not mean there were not thousands upon thousands of these tragedies this year,” he wrote on his Substack:

Nor does it mean that there was an acceptable level of gun violence, even in places seeing rapid declines. It simply means that the overall trend was extraordinarily positive and should be recognized as such.

Detroit is on pace to have the fewest murders since 1966 and Baltimore and St Louis are on pace for the fewest murders in each city in nearly a decade. Other cities that saw huge increases in murder between 2020 and 2022, like MilwaukeeNew Orleans and Houston, are seeing sizable declines in 2023. There are still cities like Memphis and Washington, DC, that are seeing increasing murders in 2023, but those cities are especially notable because they are the outliers this year, not the norm.

Yet Americans don’t seem to believe that their world is safer than ever.

In February 2024, the Pew Research Center took the American electorate’s temperature. This nonpartisan, nonprofit research group identified 20 issues that will be priorities when voters decide between President Joe Biden and Unindicted Co-conspirator Number One in November. (Israel-Palestine didn’t even make the list, although perhaps it might now, amidst the campus demonstrations that are in the news around the country.) A whopping 73 percent saw the economy as the top priority for any president, outstripping the next item (defending against terrorism) by a good 10 points. 

“Reducing crime” was in the seven spot, at 58 percent, which may seem like OK news on the surface. But in fact, concern about personal safety, up 11 points in a little more than three years, is trending in the opposite direction of actual crimes. While the big shift has been among Republicans and “Republican leaners” — from 38 percent to 68 percent since Joe Biden was inaugurated in 2021 — 47 percent of Democrats also think crime should be a priority. 

Here’s the puzzle: analysis of crime statistics — also by Pew — argue that there are fewer crimes committed in the United States today than there have been in any year since the early 1990s. Then you may recall, politicians “solved” the crime problem, not through full employment, education or welfare, but with harsh sentences, incarcerating a whole generation of mostly Black men for decades. Things peaked at about 2 million people incarcerated and pending trial in 2010 and has since fallen by about 400,000 souls.

So the fact that public opinion is so out of synch with crime statistics puts Democrats in a tricky position for November: they must defend policies that are working, but that large numbers of Americans, including Democrats, believe are failing. But trying to counter the narrative on the right is difficult, because these policies are counterintuitive to what Americans have believed for generations. For example, if the prison population is dropping, and the United States is becoming safer, that might mean that crime rates and incarceration rates are independent variables in determining overall rates of crime. Or it might mean that incarceration causes crime. Some policymakers did believe that prison transformed petty criminals into hardened, violent felons — hence the creation of a separate prison system for juvenile offenders beginning at the turn of the 20th century in Illinois and Colorado.

Here’s what I would do if I were the Democrats.

Instead of allowing Republicans to take over the narrative, I would look for the programs that work and that have contributed to reducing crime. I would create a series of advertisements featuring police officers talking about why community policing methods work; mothers talking about how “second chance” diversion programs turned their kids around; programs that support students in graduating from high school and going on to college; men and women who finished technical training, or high school and college degrees, while incarcerated started afresh; and formerly incarcerated men working as violence interrupters. 

These are just a few of programs that produce thousands of success stories—and reductions in crime. That story is happening now, and American voters need to know it.

Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.

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