Okay, Let’s Talk About Crime

I’ve forgotten the name of the old-time pundit who first summed up the biggest problem we humans face, but Mark Twain is often credited with a variation of it. “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

That observation has never been more apt. In this, our age of the Internet, it’s the things Americans “know” that just aren’t so that have given us our polarized, fraught politics. Think of the things so many Americans wrongly think they know: the 2020 election was stolen, climate change is a hoax, vaccines cause autism and don’t ward off disease, President Biden can control the prosecutor and jury in a state-level trial, the economy is in recession …the list goes on.

Here in Indiana, anyone unfortunate enough to have weathered the vicious and fact-free food fight that was the Republican primary contest for Governor heard increasingly ridiculous claims about crime in the United States. (I’m surprised that anyone listening to–and actually believing–those claims had the courage to leave their homes.)

It really isn’t easy to be and remain this uninformed, but quite obviously, lots of folks manage to believe what they want to believe, easily ascertainable facts be damned.

I recently came across some data on crime, and those facts tell a rather different story than the one being peddled by the GOP.

Despite false claims by Donald Trump that crime has increased under President Joe Biden, PolitiFact confirms that in 2022, the violent crime rate neared a 50-year low.

That’s not all. Preliminary statistics for 2023 indicate the lowest levels of violent crime ever recorded, dropping below previous records in 2014 and 2019. And that’s still not all, because right now it appears that 2024 is still trending down…

There are fewer violent crimes now than there were in 1971 under Richard Nixon, despite a population that has increased by over 100 million people. Today we are experiencing not simply fewer crimes per person, but fewer crimes overall. According to FBI statistics, there were over 5 million fewer violent crimes in the United States last year than in the final full year of Ronald Reagan’s “tough on crime” administration.

After peaking in 1991 under George H. W. Bush, violent crime has been slowly declining year over year. There have been a few exceptions: Some categories of violent crime, including murder, were up in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic. Even then, those numbers didn’t come close to the levels seen in the 1980s or 1990s.

The numbers in the quoted article–together with their links to official sources of the data– directly contradict one of the GOP’s major talking points. That was the barely veiled racist claim made in virtually all of those nasty commercials, the claim that it is immigrants who are generating this invented “crime wave.” (“Be very afraid of those Brown people”…)

Since the statistics show that crime is actually going down, Trump has also jumped in with a false attack on FBI crime statistics, adding “fake numbers” to the list of things he can dismiss when they don’t fit his narrative. Fox News has also been leading the charge to undercut the truth by pushing an evidence-free claim from a recently formed right-wing group insisting that America has suddenly developed an issue with counting crimes.

Well, when the evidence fails to support one’s preferred world-view, I guess the only thing you can do is attack the veracity of the evidence. Or–as the linked article suggests–revise your definition of what constitutes a crime.

Only 18% of Republicans admit that Jan. 6 insurrectionists were violent and 45% believe punishment of those who fought with police, smashed their way into the Capitol, and tried to capture members of Congress has been too harsh. An eyebrow-raising 86% of Republicans don’t hold Trump to blame for any of it. But then 85% of Republicans don’t believe Trump should be prosecuted for any of the crimes he’s been charged with so far. It turns out Republicans are soft on crime—so long as it’s Republican crime.

I guess if a Republican does it, it isn’t a crime.

Also, the increasing incidents of violent weather aren’t evidence of climate change, the stock market hasn’t recently reached unprecedented highs, unemployment isn’t at a 50-year low…

As that old saying goes, it isn’t not knowing (and knowing that we don’t know) that gets us into trouble–it’s knowing things that “just ain’t so.”

Give these partisan ideologues credit. It isn’t easy avoiding fact-based reporting in order to double down on those preferred “alternative facts.” Of course, listening only to Faux News helps….


Crime And Politics

In Indianapolis, municipal elections are held during otherwise “off” political years. Last year we were treated to an effort by  Jefferson Shreve, a rich Republican, to win the Mayor’s office. His campaign ads leaned heavily on assertions that our city was crime-ridden; given the Democratic tilt of the city electorate, the ads did make visible efforts to veil their more racist elements.

Despite spending $13 million dollars of his own money, Shreve failed to exceed the GOP’s base vote, so this year, he’s running for Congress. It’s a barely-purple district, and his television ads are much more explicitly “anti-woke.” Like most Republicans running for office this year, he’s clearly counting on anti-immigrant bias and an entirely bogus insistence that immigrants are the source of an (equally-bogus) American crime wave. 

He’s not alone in that dishonesty.

 NBC recently deconstructed Trump’s assertions of immigrant-fueled crime, reviewing expert analysis and available data from major-city police departments that show zero evidence of a migrant-driven crime wave in the United States. To the contrary, available data shows overall crime levels dropping in cities that have received the most migrants.  See also, Scientific American, (12/7/20) Undocumented Immigrants Are Half as Likely to Be Arrested for Violent Crimes as U.S.-Born Citizens.

When you think about it, it makes sense that people who are undocumented would want to keep a very low profile, in order to avoid deportation.

Another analysis of the available data confirms both the bogus nature of these claims and the political motivation for raising them.

The Republican Party wanted to run a 2024 election campaign on inflation and the economy. That made some sense in June 2022, when inflation was at a 40-year high of 9.1 percent. But now inflation has fallen to 3.1 percent, and unemployment has been below 4 percent for 24 months. Banging on about prices and the economy no longer seems like a winning strategy.

So the GOP has pivoted back to its standard tactics: fear-mongering, scapegoating, and bigotry.

Fox News is no longer talking about high prices 24/7. It now apparently believes the central problem of our day is … immigrant crime.

Public Notice publisher Aaron Rupar counted 27 mentions of “migrant crime” on Wednesday alone across Fox News and Fox Business. “Migrant Crime Sparks New Outrage Across US” one chyron screamed; the segment included giant mugshots of immigrant Latino men accused of crimes. Hosts hit President Biden for not discussing “migrant crime” during a speech he gave that day.

“It’s difficult to convince Americans that they are safe or becoming safer when they do not feel safe in this nation,” John Roberts proclaimed.

Americans don’t feel safe because Republican candidates constantly lie to them about their safety. These candidates have concluded that the only way they can win is by playing on racism and fear of crime–by creating a moral panic. There is absolutely no data supporting their accusations.

A 2020 Cato study of Texas found that for native-born Americans, conviction rates were 1,422 per 100,000. For undocumented immigrants, the rate was much lower — only 782 per 100,000.  And for legal immigrants, the rate was 535 per 100,000. Cato found that immigrants were less likely to commit violent crimes, property crimes, homicides, and sexual assaults than people born in the United States.

A 2023 Stanford study found similar results when it looked at imprisonment rates going back to 1830. Immigrants have basically always been imprisoned at lower rates; today, they are 60 percent less likely to be incarcerated than people born in the US. That’s in part because Black people are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system. But even if you just look at the incarceration rates of white people born in the US, immigrants are imprisoned 30 percent less.

Migrant crime is much less of a problem than crime by native-born people. But even native-born Americans are committing fewer crimes; crime rates overall are down.

Murder rates in 2023 fell by more than 12 percent from 2022, among the biggest recorded drops. Other violent crimes also decreased. Retailers claimed that there was a huge increase in shoplifting in the last few years — but that turns out to have been almost entirely a myth

As the linked article notes, GOP rhetoric may not be based in fact, but it does have (an unsavory) basis in demagoguery and racism. Linking marginalized groups to crime to build power and justify violence is, unfortunately, nothing new.

Of course, migrants do commit some crimes. In a country with some 45 million immigrants, it’s easy to find a handful of mugshots to put on your screen. But the scare tactic is nonetheless a scare tactic; there is not a sweeping crime wave perpetrated by immigrants. To say otherwise is a lie.

The GOP’s recent refusal to pass a border control measure that gave them virtually everything they’d demanded so that they can run on the issue really gives the game away.


Perception And Reality

Here in Indianapolis, where the candidates for Mayor in this November’s election are spending unbelievable amounts of money on political advertisements (and not just television–You Tube, FaceBook, etc. etc.), there has been an overwhelming messaging focus on crime from the Republican candidate.

In a line that reminds this old-timer of Nixon, the Republican candidate–one Jefferson Shreve– assures us that he “has a plan.” Meanwhile, the effectiveness of his message depends upon voters agreeing that Indianapolis is a dystopian hellhole, where criminals roam the streets murdering people with abandon.  

I live in the urban core of this “hellhole,” and I feel quite safe–a feeling backed up by local crime data– so I welcomed this explanation of mis-matches between perception and reality in a recent op-ed by Paul Krugman.

Remember “American carnage?” Donald Trump’s 2017 inaugural address was peculiar in many ways, but one of the most striking oddities was his obsession with a problem — urban crime — that had greatly diminished over the past generation. For reasons we still don’t fully understand, violent crime in America fell rapidly from around 1990 to the mid-2010s:

True, there was a crime surge after the pandemic, which now seems to be ebbing. But that lay in the future. Trump talked as if crime was running rampant as he spoke.

Yet if Trump had false beliefs about trends in crime, he had plenty of company. Gallup polls Americans about crime every year, and all through the great decline in violent crime a majority of Americans said that crime was increasing:

Contrary to the widespread belief that criminal behavior was on the rise, Krugman pointed to the reams of evidence showing that even people who responded–and evidently believed– that crime was rising were behaving as if it was falling. That was especially true when considering the wave of gentrification–the movement of large numbers of affluent Americans into those presumably scary central cities. 

Krugman compared that mismatch of perception and reality to another current example–the disconnect between Americans’ attitudes about the economy and their own situations. The data shows that we Americans are relatively upbeat about our own financial circumstances; but we’re certain that a bad economy is harming other people–perhaps not locally, but nationally.

I thought it might be useful to draw parallels with the discourse on crime, where there is a similar disconnect between what people tell pollsters they believe is happening and what the available facts say. In fact, the resemblance between how people talk about crime and how they talk about the economy is eerily strong.

I know his next observation will shock you, but it turns out that both of these “mismatches” are grounded in partisanship. As Krugman notes, perceptions of crime, like perceptions about the economy, have become strongly partisan.

People become more pessimistic when the party they don’t support holds the White House, and that same partisanship undoubtedly explains the disconnect between perception and reality of crime in cities–both one’s own city, and urban America in general. 

As it happens, the Republican perception of Los Angeles and New York as unsafe compared with southern cities is wildly off base. Both have low homicide rates — half as high as Miami’s — and New York City is overall one of the safest places in America.

What does all this tell us, besides the fact that Americans are very confused about crime? It shows that on an important public issue, people can hold beliefs about what is happening to other people — people who live in other places, or in the nation as a whole — that are not just false but also at odds with their personal experience.

It isn’t just beliefs about people who live elsewhere. If those interminable campaign spots tell us anything, it’s that at least some inhabitants of my city feel considerably less safe than I do.

It will be interesting to see how our local campaign for Mayor plays out, and whether the Republican candidate’s effort to focus on fear of and belief in rampant crime–to the exclusion of the multiple other issues of municipal governance he might be discussing–succeeds in ousting the incumbent.

If it does (count me a doubter–among other things, in his ads, Shreve comes across as rather creepy), it will be really interesting to see whether his vague, much touted “plan” suddenly becomes concrete (not to mention municipally affordable), and whether it makes residents believe that Indianapolis has become less dangerous.

In all fairness, Nixon’s “plan” did eventually get the U.S. out of Viet Nam….


The Politics Of Crime

There’s a reason for that old journalism mantra “if it bleeds, it leads.” Most people are concerned about their own safety, for one thing, and are more likely to read about threats that might affect them. And crime is (superficially) straightforward and easy to understand. Good guys versus bad guys.

The characteristics that explain media’s focus on crime also apply to political campaigns, particularly at the local level. Here in Indianapolis, the Republican candidate for mayor has run a campaign almost entirely focused on the incumbent’s asserted inability to reduce criminal activity, insisting that he–the Republican–“has a plan.”  (Presumably, the incumbent doesn’t?) 

This campaign strategy–and the interminable advertisements hawking it–really annoys me.

For one thing, it ignores the fact that criminal activity in Indianapolis is hardly unique; our problems mirror national ones. This single-minded and exaggerated focus on crime also ignores the multiple other areas of governance that a mayor is responsible for providing. (Listening to those ads, you’d be forgiven for thinking this guy is running for sheriff, not mayor.)

Of course, the campaign in Indianapolis is pretty standard GOP strategy. The “law and order” party (a label that–given MAGA and Donald Trump–makes sentient Americans laugh) continues to scream about crime–which it almost always attributes to urban areas. (After all,  Blue cities are where most of those scary Black folks live…)

The data begs to differ.

Republican politicians often treat it as an established fact: Where they are in power, crime is low. Where Democrats are in power, crime is high.

“Republican-run cities are doing very nicely because they arrest people when you have crimes,” Donald Trump told Tucker Carlson last week.

“The cities and these left-wing states allowing criminals to run wild on our streets, that doesn’t work,” Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, said in March, citing New York in particular.

But party rule does not drive crime. Consider DeSantis’s state, Florida. Its homicide rate was roughly 50 percent higher than New York’s in 2021. Florida’s two most populous cities, Jacksonville and Miami, each had a homicide rate more than double New York City’s last year, even though both had Republican mayors.

 As the article points out, the data shows no connection between political partisanship and crime. “To put it another way, prominent Republicans are misrepresenting the country’s crime problem.”

The linked article referenced a number of reasons for America’s stubborn crime rates, especially the widespread availability of guns.

Access to guns is another major factor, particularly for murders. Guns make any conflict more likely to escalate into deadly violence, and they can embolden criminals. On this issue, there is a partisan divide — Democrats are more comfortable regulating firearms — and that could help explain higher levels of violence in Republican states, especially in the South. It can also explain violence in cities, which get a lot of guns from Southern states with laxer laws.

Indiana’s legislature, which is dominated by rural interests and which includes a number of members who are widely considered “gun nuts,” has ensured that the Hoosier state’s gun laws are as lax as those of any Southern state, if not more. 

Mike Leppert recently had a column on the costs of that laxity. In the wake of the last mass shooting, he wrote 

We don’t ever talk about what it all costs. No, in most circles, it doesn’t get a mention. An accounting of the cost of guns is rarely undertaken, and when it is, the numbers are so shocking and enormous, the study usually falls victim to the post-truth era in which we live.

After confirming that in the year since “permitless” carry became the law in Indiana, gun related crime increased, Leppert wrote

As reported by Casey Smith of the Indiana Capital Chronicle on Aug. 21, accidental shootings are on the rise. Smith wrote: “Since July 2022, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) has been tracking accidental shootings, specifically. IMPD found non-fatal, accidental shootings more than doubled in February 2023 compared to February averages in the last 5 years. There were as many as 75 such incidents for the last half of 2022, and more than 75% of those were self-inflicted.”

There’s a cost to each one of them. Medical costs. Emergency responses. Productivity loss….

Everytown Research and Policy published its sweeping report on the cost of guns in July of last year. The number? $557 billion annually, or nearly $1,700 for every resident in America.  Not every gun owner. Not every NRA member. Every resident….

What does culture get for this Faustian bargain? Gun owners get freedom. They get a false sense of safety and security. They get identity.

The rest of us just get the tab.

And Republican candidates supported by the NRA get dishonest talking points…..


Politics And Perception

Every so often, there will be a vigorous debate on social media that hinges on perception–is this dress blue or gold? What color are these shoes?  The arguments can get pretty heated, with viewers insisting that those who see a different color must be defective in some way.

There are scientific efforts to explain these opposing views.(Apparently, when context/background varies, so will people’s visual perception.)

Context and background probably explain other differences in perception–for example, the prevalence of criminal activity.

The linked article from the Washington Post was prompted by the recent spate of irrational shootings–a teenager sent to collect his younger brothers, who rang the doorbell at the wrong house; a woman driver who pulled into the “wrong” driveway; cheerleaders who approached the “wrong” car in a parking lot.

Across the country this month, at least four men have opened fire on someone who’d stumbled upon their space, resulting in one death, two injuries and a car pocked with bullet holes. The apparent acts of snap-aggression have reinvigorated the debate around the prevalence of “stand your ground” laws in the United States and a pressing question: Why are people so quick to pull the trigger on strangers?…

Experts blame a cocktail of factors: the easy availability of guns, misconceptions around stand-your-ground laws, the marketing of firearms for self-defense — and a growing sense among Americans, particularly Republicans, that safety in their backyard is deteriorating. (emphasis mine)

Survey research confirms that fear of the “other”–and a growing belief that pretty much anyone could be a dangerous “other”–is more widespread among Republicans, who are also more likely to own guns. The gap is significant.

Since 2020, the share of Republicans who said that crime is rising in their community has jumped from 38 percent to 73 percent, according to the latest Gallup numbers from last fall. Among Democrats, that same concern climbed only 5 percentage points to 42 percent, marking the widest partisan perception gap since the polling firm first asked the question a half-century ago.

There is a reason Republicans are convinced that crime is growing: GOP strategists have encouraged Republican candidates to dwell on fear of crime and to level accusations that “woke” Democrats are insufficiently supportive of police and too protective of “those people.” (Here in Indianapolis, that strategy was employed by a Republican candidate in the recent primary, who won that primary largely by running repeated, offensive ads describing a violent hell-hole of a city most of its residents didn’t recognize.)

Not surprisingly, Rightwing media is culpable for spreading misinformation about crime.

The perception that life is getting more dangerous has spread on the right as GOP leaders and pundits repeatedly argued, without evidence, that immigrants and protesters are jeopardizing American peace. Conservative news channels have devoted more airtime to violence than their center- and left-leaning competitors: Over the past three years, for instance, Fox News anchors and guests spotlighted crime 79 percent more often than those on MSNBC and twice as much as voices on CNN, according to a Washington Post analysis of closed captioning…

So–what does accurate data tell us? (What color is that dress, really…)

A Washington Post crime analysis of 80 major police departments’ records found that reported violence across the country in 2022 was lower than the five-year average.

And over the longer term, the National Criminal Victimization Survey showed the number of people reporting sexual assault, robbery and other physical attacks is overall much lower now than in the 1990s and has not increased in recent years.

Homicides and thefts did rise during the pandemic, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data —but even then, that rise did not reach the levels of the 1990s. (It is worth noting that when it came to homicides, states with stand-your-ground laws had a 55 percent higher homicide-by-firearm rate in the past two years than the states that didn’t have such laws.)

The 28-year-old grandson of the 84-year-old White man who shot Black teenager Ralph Yarl, told officers that his grandfather was perpetually “scared to death. It’s the paranoia and fear…. It was the 24-hour news cycle — Fox News, OAN, all that stuff — pushing the civil division. Everybody is just so scared all the time.”

Context and background.

It’s one thing when you see a gold dress and I see a blue one. It’s something else entirely when I see a neighbor looking for directions and you see one of “those people” looking to rob or otherwise harm you–someone posing a threat that requires you to get your (always handy) gun and “stand your ground.”

The politicians and media outlets inculcating paranoia in their drive for power and profit are every bit as guilty as the armed and terrified citizens they’ve encouraged to pull the triggers.