Do Crime Stats Matter?

Image by Maxim Hopman.

Politicians love to point to high crime rates to justify tough law-and-order policies on the right or strict gun control measures on the left. But surprisingly little of this hot-button crime debate is based on how much actual crime is occurring.

Even when crime rates fall, as indeed they have – and fairly consistently – for many years, there’s still a distinct lag in public perception.

Why does so much of the American public still buy into the persistent hype and hysteria about “rising” violent crime? Mainly, because it’s useful to political entrepreneurs intent on selling their respective agendas.

But there’s very little, if any, supporting evidence.

The statistics are stark. Between 1993 and 2018, the rate of violent crime fell sharply, according to data collected by the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department. The FBI found a 50% decline in violent crime over this period. A separate annual survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported an even larger 71% decline.

In fact, property crime, which is far more common, also fell sharply during this same period, according to both sources.

Simply put, Americans are committing far less crime than they did 25 years ago. Indeed, given the lawlessness that accompanied our nation’s founding and early development, we may well be experiencing the most crime-free period of our entire 250-year history.

But the public’s perception of rising crime remains strong, according to Gallup, which annually surveys Americans on political and social issues. In 18 of its 22 yearly surveys conducted between 1993 and 2018, Gallup found that 60% of its respondents on average believed that crime had increased over the previous year even though crime statistics clearly showed otherwise.

Some members of the public may be developing a more clear-eyed view of crime as a national problem.

For example, in 1993 a whopping 80% of Gallup survey respondents believed that crime had increased over the previous year. But by 2018, that figure had fallen to below 6 in 10. That’s an improvement, but overall the lag in perception remains.

FBI statistics show that crime did, in fact, spike during two brief periods, 2004-2005 and 2014-2016. Arguably, those two increases may have contributed to the perception that the crime rate hasn’t actually fallen as sharply as it has since 1993.

Another complicating factor is that survey respondents typically perceive the national crime rate to be considerably higher than the crime rate in their own area. Generally, less than half of respondents for the 1993 to 2018 period felt that the local crime rate was increasing.

The evident disjuncture between declining crime rates and varying public perceptions of crime suggests that Americans are invested in the “rising crime” narrative for other reasons.

One possibility is that images of crime in the mass media heavily influence the public’s perception of crime — largely by magnifying it. In fact, the evidence supporting this hypothesis is mixed. Most studies suggest that viewers of TV crime dramas do have a greater fear of crime; however, they do not necessarily exaggerate the level of actual crime — either nationally or in their own cities and neighborhoods

It turns out that most Americans rely on FBI reporting to form their impressions of crime rates. If so, it’s unclear why so many Americans still believe that crime rates are increasing when FBI reporting shows a fairly continuous decline.

However, local news programs do tend to over-highlight murders and robberies as part of their regular programming. Research suggests that a steady diet of murders, robberies and assault on the evening news does contribute to exaggerated perceptions of how prevalent violent crime still is.

Demographics used to play a role in shaping public perception. In past years, those with less education and lower incomes were more likely to think that crime is increasing than those with higher incomes and more education.

But White and non-Whites now have more or less the same perceptions about the crime rate, so race and ethnic background alone is no longer such an overriding factor, studies show.

What about political affiliation? The national GOP is heavily invested in “law and order” policies, so one might expect its supporters to share a hyper-vigilance — and exaggerated perception — about crime. That was certainly true in the era of President Nixon’s infamous “war on crime.”

But the partisan gap has narrowed. In the 1990s, the Clinton Administration also targeted crime as a major national issue. During these years, many Democrats seemed to think that national crime rates were rising, even though they weren’t – a perception that Clinton, like Nixon, exploited.

So what accounts for this sharply declining crime rate? Amazingly, experts don’t know — or can’t seem to agree. It could be that improved law enforcement — through the adoption of community-oriented policing and a better allocation of police resources through programs like ComStat – have helped deter crime.

Conservative analysts suggest that mass incarceration policies during the 1990s might have taken more felons and would-be felons off the street.

But most unbiased analysts don’t credit harsh – or even softer, more improved – law enforcement for the decline in crime. Instead, they point to much larger factors in the evolution of American society.

Median incomes rose considerably in the 1990s and real economic mobility among African-Americans occurred, reducing poverty as a factor spurring crime. And as more and more Americans got older, the share of younger people in the overall population with a higher propensity to commit violent crime also declined.

And consider this, too: Guns are no longer the primary means of violent assault as they were in past decades. These days — except in the case of murder — knives, blunt weapons, pesticides and even fists and feet are more commonly employed.

And it’s not because there are fewer guns circulating on the street. It’s because violent criminals — for reasons still unknown — are using guns in the commission of crime far less often.

Another problem is that crime, including violent crime, doesn’t affect all demographics equally.

The upshot? There is still a lot we don’t know about the nature and sources and nature of violent crime. But notwithstanding the spike in the homicide rate that occurred in 2020-2021 thanks to COVID, the crime trend is still sharply down regardless of the state of funding for the local police or restrictions on handgun possession.

And because of the underlying factors in play, it’s like to stay that way.

That should be bad news for the political entrepreneurs that prefer to hype their favorite crime policy agendas – on the right and the left.

But political narratives, especially in an election year, can still completely override the “facts on the ground.”

And so can the availability of gripping videos of “smash and grab” robberies at major department stores or illegal border crossings en masse. Ordinary citizens can film these events, or security footage from closed circuit cameras at commercial enterprises quickly leaks and becomes a national sensation.

What’s the reality of crime in 2024?

Some statistical trends, like the doubling of violent crime suffered by youngsters, are truly disturbing – but still poorly understood.

Others, like the high-profile killings of US citizens by illegal immigrants, are being exploited by conservatives, to great effect – but the frequency of these incidents has been completely exaggerated.

The same is true of deaths due to mass shootings, which account for only a tiny percentage of violent crimes each year.

But when the victims are youth or children, they can cause a near moral panic among large segments of the public, leading to recurring demands for “gun control,” including tough new restrictions on the sale of certain classes of rifles.

Overall, Republicans seem to have the upper hand on the crime issue in 2024, as they do generally. But the issue hasn’t moved voters in recent elections as much as conservatives have hoped. In the 2022 midterms, the GOP “crime wave” narrative fell flat with most voters.

That’s likely to change this November. Poll after poll shows that crime has emerged as a top issue for voters, and that most voters trust Trump and the GOP more than Biden and the Democrats to address it – by a wide margin.

And yet neither party has much to say about what should actually be done.

For Republicans, more tax resources to support higher police budgets may run counter to their cutting fiscal deficits message. And for Democrats, more support for gun bans – or worse, “defund the police” measures – can cost them votes with key demographics, including some minority voters.

The upshot? Even with a decided uptick in armed vehicle thefts and car-jackings – typically reported as mere “property crime” – America is facing less violent crime than ever – by a substantial margin.

But don’t tell that to voters when they go to the polls in November, with highly subjective images of crime and its impact on their communities swirling in their head.

In the end, as a guide to both policy and perception, real crime statistics don’t seem to matter all that much.

Where does that leave progressives? In a bind. Echoing the GOP crime wave narrative – as Democrats, to their chagrin, have too often done in the past – surely won’t help. But simply ignoring public perceptions – or stigmatizing conservatives for “racist” policing – won’t either.

Focusing on specific crime spikes – including violent car-jacking, a growing concern – and on the adoption of cutting-edge anti-crime technology – which can increase police operational efficiency at current manpower levels while deterring crime and minimizing violent encounters – may offer some relief.

Inner-city voters of all backgrounds do want a proactive approach to fighting what crime exists – and they’re more likely to support measures that are “modern,” cost-effective, targeted, and free of the racial stigma and ideological posturing that too often confounds – and inflates – the issue.

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at