Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination Thursday night with a bleak, fearsome portrayal of a country in distress, and vowed to be, first and foremost, a law-and-order-president. From the opening-night theme — “Make America Safe Again” — to Trump’s climactic stemwinder, delegates in Cleveland were treated to some of the most alarming rhetoric since the days of Richard Nixon.
“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” Trump declared. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.”
Absent was any discussion of reforms that, at least until Trump emerged, were gaining support among Republican officials: community policing, less draconian sentencing, more humane prison conditions, reentry programs that give released inmates a better chance to go straight. On the contrary, leading foes of federal reforms took the stage. The phrase “mass incarceration” went unmentioned. Black Lives Matter was treated as a menace rather than a response to high-profile police killings of black Americans. “I have a message for all of you” the nominee announced. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end. Beginning on January 20th, 2017, safety will be restored.”
Except for a promise to appoint and work with “the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country,” Trump did not say how he planned to end crime and violence, let alone what it might cost or how he would deal with constitutional niceties like the separation of powers.
In service of his dire picture of America in chaos, Trump and other speakers loosed a barrage of information—some accurate, some misleading, and some simply wrong. The Trump campaign may be immune to fact-checking. (Confronted with FBI data showing that crime has been declining for decades, Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, told CNN he doesn’t trust the FBI data because of how the bureau handled Hillary Clinton’s email probe.) But for those who believe facts count for something, here is our check:“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration's rollback of criminal enforcement.”
Almost all of Trump’s arguments for why he must promote law and order come back to a single idea: crime is going up. The morning after his speech, former New Orleans police chief Ronal Serpas, who is now a criminologist, put out a response: ”Our country's crime rates are at historic lows. Misrepresenting these facts only makes our job harder.”
The violent crime rate in 2014 was less than half what it was at its peak in 1991, and Obama’s presidency did not meaningfully halt more than two decades of decline. But there is a way in which Trump is right: An FBI report of preliminary crime figures for the first six months of 2015 showed a slight uptick in reported violent crimes — like murder, robbery, and sexual assault — of 1.7 percent nationwide over the same period in the previous year. Hardly a reversal, but still an increase.
In the last year, other political leaders have made similar arguments about a “rollback in criminal enforcement” spurring crime. The federal government has little power over the country’s roughly 18,000 local and state law enforcement agencies, but the “rollback” could refer to several decisions. President Obama has restricted the supply of military-style equipment to local police. Under his watch the U.S. Sentencing Commission — nonpartisan, with at least one Bush appointee — recommended early parole for some drug offenders, which led to the release of more than 6,000 federal prisoners last year.
It is too soon to know if those 6,000 will commit more crimes, but the last time a similar change in drug sentencing guidelines led to the mass release of federal drug offenders — in 2007, under President Bush — the commission later found they were not significantly more likely to commit crime than if they had been released later. Keep in mind that roughly 700,000 state and federal inmates are released each year.
One more way of looking at the “rollback,” was in the 2016 Republican party platform, which said the work of police “should not be made more difficult by politicized second-guessing from federal officials” and referred to “the Attorney General’s present campaign of harassment against police forces around the country.”
These arguments refer to the often-discussed and little-understood “Ferguson Effect,” the theory that cops are “depolicing”— not doing their jobs as effectively because of increased scrutiny over high-profile cases of arrest-related deaths. Though some researchers have explored the issue, no one has yet been able to effectively prove or disprove the depolicing theory, largely because the FBI will not release 2015 data on arrest rates until the fall.
On the ground, police have offered mixed views on whether a feeling of scrutiny is influencing how they do their jobs: Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn has denied the claim, and yet last year in Jennings, the town next to Ferguson, Missouri, St. Louis County police officer Trevor Voss told The Marshall Project his peers were being more careful. “Nobody wants to be the next Darren Wilson,” he said, referring to the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.“Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America's 50 largest cities. That's the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation's capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60 percent in nearby Baltimore. In the president's hometown of Chicago, more than 2,000 have been the victims of shootings this year alone. And almost 4,000 have been killed in the Chicago area since he took office.”
The FBI won’t release the full crime reports for 2015 until later this year, but some researchers and trade groups have compiled their own counts of homicides from a sample of the nation’s biggest cities. A National Institute of Justice report examined numbers in 56 cities and found a 16.8 percent annual jump in homicides last year, largely concentrated in 10 cities, including Baltimore and Washington, D.C. A similar study from the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association counted a 13.5 percent rise in homicides in cities policed by its members.
The rise in these cities was one of the largest since the 1990s, but it comes after a long decline in violent crime generally, and on the heels of 2014, which had the fewest homicides since the 1960s. It is true that Chicago has had an unbelievable amount of gun violence. So far this year, The Chicago Tribune has counted more than 2,200 people shot in the city. Between 2009, when Obama took office, and last year, the city has had more than 3,000 homicides recorded.
Despite the uptick in some cities, it’s unclear whether there was a similar growth in all violent crimes nationwide or what might be causing it. According to the Associated Press, criminologists and law enforcement leaders have not yet been able to account for why a rise in murders hit certain cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, but not others like Miami and Oakland.
Is the Department of Justice’s “harassment” causing an uptick in crime? Of the largest cities that have seen a rise in murder rates, only three — Cleveland, Newark, and New Orleans — are operating under consent decrees with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Not all police departments rebuff the feds: Baltimore is one of at least a dozen cities where police officials have welcomed aid from Obama’s Justice Department. Police there volunteered to partner with the Justice Department in order to get a handle on police misconduct (the federal intervention escalated to forced oversight when riots erupted after Freddie Gray’s death in the back of a police van).“The number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen by almost 50 percent compared to this point last year.”
Trump is correct on this one — if he was referring to canine officers. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, 25 police dogs have been killed in the line of duty so far this year, a 47 percent increase from this time a year ago.
When it comes to the human police force, however, Officer Down lists 68 officers killed since the beginning of this year, which is exactly the same number as this time last year. This includes not just shootings, but officers killed by many causes, including friendly fire, 9/11-related illnesses, automobile accidents, plane crashes and drowning.
Let's assume Trump meant to specify cops deliberately killed in the line of duty, what the FBI calls "felonious killings." Data for “felonious killings” of police this year will not be released until 2017. Such killings have been on a steady decline since the 1970s, with the two safest years for cops both occurring under Obama. Killings of police did rise between 2013 and 2014, but what’s missing from that number is the fact that 2013 was a record-low year, with the fewest killings of police in a half-century of recorded data.
Trump’s campaign staff says this number came from a June 2016 report by a conservative think tank, the Center for Immigration Studies, which cited data obtained from the Senate Judiciary Committee. The data shows that 179,040 immigrants with at least one criminal conviction remained in the United States as of July 4, 2015, even after being issued a final order for deportation and exhausting all their appeals. Trump failed to mention some essential context: not all of these immigrants were undocumented when they came to the U.S., and it’s likely that a large portion of their criminal convictions were simply for entering the country illegally. There is no breakdown in the figure Trump cites of how many of these had serious, violent convictions that could pose a “[threat] to peaceful citizens.” Nearly 7,000 of those immigrants are being held in detention centers, and not “roaming free.” Also, most of the immigrants who have been ordered deported but remain in the U.S. do not have a criminal conviction; those with some kind of record make up roughly 20 percent.“The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total of 2015. They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.”
Border-crossing statistics aren’t the most reliable, as they often count only the number of people apprehended by Border Patrol. An increase in these numbers could be used to argue that border enforcement is stronger than it was before.
There has been a significant increase in the number of children and families apprehended by Border Patrol so far in FY 2016 compared to FY 2015, as Pew Research Center reports. Many of these families arrive and request asylum in hopes of gaining legal status. Detention of these families greatly expanded under President Obama.“One such border-crosser was released and made his way to Nebraska. There, he ended the life of an innocent young girl named Sarah Root. … But to this administration [she] was just one more American life that wasn't worth protecting. One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders.”
The immigrant responsible for Sarah Root’s death, Eswin Mejia, was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Nogales, Ariz., when he was 16 years old, after crossing the border from Honduras. He was deemed an unaccompanied minor and sent to live with his brother while awaiting his deportation hearing. He was 19 when he crashed into Root’s car while street-racing with a .241 blood alcohol level. His criminal record at the time of Root’s death consisted of minor driving violations, for which he failed to appear in court. He fled after a judge released him on bond while facing charges for vehicular homicide.“Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities. Many have witnessed this violence personally. Some have even been its victims.”
The implication of a nation seized by fear was an explicit theme of other speakers, notably Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Clarke cited polls showing Americans more worried about crime and violence. “The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe,” Giuliani said.
Indeed, a March 2016 Gallup poll asking how much Americans worry about crime and violence showed 53 percent of respondents — and 68 percent of “nonwhites” — said they worry a “great deal,” up from 42 percent in 2012.
But much depends on how you ask the question. In a 2015 survey, Gallup found that 59 percent of respondents considered crime “extremely” or “very” serious in America, but only 12 percent said that about “the area where you live.” And last month, asked an open-ended question about “the most important problem” facing the nation, only 3 percent identified crime and violence. Back in 1996, at the height of crime fears, 37 percent put crime at the top of their list.