A nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system
Updated 09.28.2016: This story has been updated with new data from the FBI's "Crime in the United States, 2015" report.
Is crime in America rising or falling? The answer is not nearly as simple as politicians sometimes make it out to be, because of how the FBI collects and handles crime data from the country’s more than 18,000 police agencies. Those local reports are voluntary and sometimes inconsistent. And the bureau takes months or years to crunch the numbers, so the national data lags behind the current state of crime.
To present a fuller picture of crime in America, The Marshall Project collected and analyzed 40 years of FBI data on the most serious violent crimes in 68 police jurisdictions. Our analysis of the years 1975 through 2015 found that violent crime in these jurisdictions rose 2.2 percent last year, while nationally violent crime rose 3 percent. (But crime experts caution against making too much of year-over-year statistics.)
In the process, we were struck by the wide variation from community to community. To paraphrase an aphorism about politics, all crime is local. Each city has its own trends that depend on the characteristics of the city itself, the time frame, and the type of crime. In fact, the trends vary from neighborhood to neighborhood within cities; a recent study posited that 5 percent of city blocks account for 50 percent of the crime. That is why most Americans believe crime is worse, while significantly fewer believe it is worse where they live.
We’re making the data we collected available to download, for anyone who might be interested in examining the historic trends.
Take a look at this chart, and you’ll see how changing the city, the type of crime — murder, rape, robbery, or aggravated assault — or the span of time studied can affect your view of how crime is changing. You can scroll down for city-by-city trends and highlights.
In his speech accepting his party’s nomination for president at the Republican National Convention in July, Donald Trump proclaimed that “Our president, who has used the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color, has made America a more dangerous environment for everyone than frankly I have ever seen and anybody in this room has ever watched or seen.”
But days later when the Democrats gathered for their convention in Philadelphia, President Obama responded, “Donald Trump calls [America] ‘a divided crime scene’ that only he can fix. It doesn’t matter to him that illegal immigration and the crime rate are as low as they’ve been in decades…”
So who is right: Trump or Obama? Are we in the throes of a crime wave sweeping across the nation, or is this a period of stability and safety unlike any we’ve seen in a generation?
The Marshall Project used a widely accepted statistical calculation to get a weighted average of recent years — essentially smoothing out the year-to-year fluctuations that are common to crime data. We found that the reported violent crimes rose in our cities last year to its highest point since 2012. But viewed in the broader context of the past five decades, crime remains near record lows. Note that we focused on cities, where crime is most prevalent, excluding more affluent suburbs or the sparsely developed rural areas that make up the rest of the country.
President Obama is correct when he says violent crime is near an all-time low. Since 2008, the national rate of violent crime has been lower than at any point since 1976. Although recent data, such as a report compiled by the Major Cities Chiefs Association a professional organization of the leaders of the country’s largest police departments, show crime in several major cities has risen in the past year, the uptick is still dramatically lower than the highs reached in the early 1990s.
Donald Trump’s assertion that the nation has become more dangerous than he (or anybody) has ever seen is clearly inaccurate. Since Obama was sworn into office, violent crime in the major cities and across the nation has dropped, albeit not as dramatically as in recent history. New studies such as one published this summer by the National Institute of Justice show homicides rose in dozens of cities last year, though much of that increase was concentrated in just 10: Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., Nashville, Tenn., Philadelphia, Kansas City, Mo., and St. Louis.
Looking back to 1975, crime today is low, but there is growing consensus that the dramatic drops of the early 21st century may be slowing, if not leveling off entirely.
n the midst of the debate over whether crime is up or down, the Major Cities Chiefs Association has been surveying its membership to collect the number of violent crimes reported each quarter.
The FBI’s data is a good historical benchmark but isn't particularly helpful to police rank-in-file in combatting crime, said the association’s executive director, Darrel Stephens.
The chiefs’ mid-year snapshots 2015 and 2016 offer a glimpse of what has been happening in these major cities. They show upticks in many of the jurisdictions over the first six months of this year. Some – like New Orleans, San Antonio, and Houston – are dramatic. But more than 40 percent of the police departments reported decreases in violent crime.
Crime rates are erratic. Singular events, such as the Orlando nightclub shooting, can dramatically skew individual years. Changes in how certain crimes are reported can affect these numbers, as can shifting policing priorities. That is why crime experts recommend looking at the change in a city’s crime rate over at least several years.
Ultimately the chiefs’ survey is too limited to tell us whether the crimes reported in these jurisdictions represent a sustained trend or are indicative of what’s happening nationally. The FBI will not release 2016 numbers until late next year.
“I don't know if we've got the beginning of a longer term trend in the change in violent crime,” Stephens said. “We've had this 20-year decline. I don't know if that's changing. I think it's too soon for anybody to really know that for sure.”
|Baltimore County, Md.||1993||1563||-21.58|
|El Paso, Texas||1200||1354||12.83|
|Fairfax County, Va.||293||338||15.36|
|Fort Worth, Texas||2125||2169||2.07|
|Long Beach, Calif.||1302||1408||8.14|
|Los Angeles County, Calif.||6489||7082||9.14|
|Miami-Dade County, Fla.||3162||2899||-8.32|
|Montgomery County, Md.||896||786||-12.28|
|Nassau County, N.Y.||483||510||5.59|
|New York City||17848||18120||1.52|
|Prince George's County, Md.||765||820||7.19|
|Salt Lake City||643||770||19.75|
|St. Louis, Mo.||2806||2776||-1.07|
|Virginia Beach, Va.||342||377||10.23|
For a longer-term perspective, we looked at the change in the violent crime trend between 2010 and 2015 in our 68-city sample. These 10 places had the largest increases and decreases over this period.
It’s important to remember that these figures are based on voluntary reports. Changes in how certain crimes are reported (for instance rape) can dramatically affect these numbers, as can shifting department policies and numerous other factors.
In our analysis of violent crime trends, the cities and counties fell into four groups. The groups are mainly aligned by violent crime rates, with the most violent group averaging nearly 10 times the rate of violence as the least violent group. All four groups experienced a decline in violent crime rates. The group with the highest rates of violence — including Atlanta, Miami and Newark — saw the largest drop.
Group A consists of 13 police jurisdictions, with an average of 1,241 violent crimes per 100,000 people last year. From 1975 to 2015, the group’s violent crime trend has dropped 22 percent.
Group B consists of 18 police jurisdictions with an average of 970 violent crimes per 100,000 people last year. From 1975 to 2015, the group’s violent crime trend has dropped 3 percent.
Group C consists of 31 police jurisdictions with an average of 600 violent crimes per 100,000 people last year. From 1975 to 2015, the group’s violent crime trend has dropped 19 percent.
Group D consists of 6 police jurisdictions with an average of 152 violent crimes per 100,000 people last year. From 1975 to 2015, the group’s violent crime trend has dropped 17 percent.
Correction: An earlier version of this story included incorrect crime estimates for New York City for 2015. It has since been updated.
The Marshall Project compiled the most recent Uniform Crime Reporting numbers available on the four major crimes the FBI classifies as violent: homicide, rape, robbery and assault.
We collected information on the jurisdictions that are members of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which collected violent crime numbers for 2015 and the first two quarters of this year. All but one of the members in the Major Cities Chiefs Association have populations of 250,000 or greater.
We found, however, that the respondents to the Major Cities Chiefs Association survey had many different ways of reporting the data that made it impossible to compare the chief’s numbers to FBI data we had already amassed from the the Uniform Crime Reporting program’s “Offenses Known and Clearances by Arrest” databases.
To obtain 2015 reports before they were set to be published by the FBI in the fall of this year, we contacted the 68 different police agencies. We were unable to get 2015 data for seven: Baltimore County, Md., Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, Louisville, Ky., Portland, Ore., and Seattle. After the release of "Crime in the United States, 2015" in September, only three agencies still remained without data: Baltimore County, Md., Cleveland and Portland. Read more
The majority of the police agencies we chose are municipal departments, and for ease of phrasing, we collectively refer to our sample as cities. However, at least three agencies patrol both cities and counties — the Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C., Police Department; the Jacksonville, Fla., Sheriff’s Office; and the Louisville Metro Police Department. There are also eight departments whose jurisdictions include whole or parts of counties:
In some cases, the department or its state reporting agency had already published 2015 numbers using the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting summary reporting system. In several cases, we had to ask the department directly for the figures. Many had to convert the data from a newer, incident-based system to the summary system. We have published the results of our reporting in this spreadsheet for others to use, now updated with the FBI's latest 2015 figures.
For every department, we calculated the rate of crime in each category and for all violent crime, per 100,000 residents in the jurisdiction, based on the FBI’s estimated population for that year. In the few departments that did not report to the FBI for 2015, we used the 2014 estimated population.
The weighted average is a LOESS regression. The hierarchical cluster analysis uses Ward’s algorithm (“ward.D”) as implemented in the statistical analysis program R.
There are downsides to the Uniform Crime Reporting program. Differing counting methods, changing definitions of crimes, voluntary and sometimes erratic participation lead to data being slow to emerge to the public and often full of holes and caveats. At any point in time, the most recent full-year numbers from the Uniform Crime Reporting program are between nine and 21 months old.
Wherever possible, we went back to individual states, the departments themselves or contemporary news accounts to fill in data missing from the databases. Still, there were four instances where we were unable to locate data:
Similarly, when we found that one of our chosen departments did not report crimes for all 12 months in a given year, we did our best to go back and find full-year counts. We were able to fill in many of the gaps, but there were some, particularly those more than 30 years ago, that we were unable to locate. All of our counts are for 12 months of reported crime, except for: New Orleans Police Department in 2005. The agency only reported for the first six months of the year and stopped after Hurricane Katrina hit the city.
In 2013, the FBI changed how it defined rape. Until that point, rape was only counted if it was “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” The revised, broader definition became: “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” This presented several challenges. In 2013 and 2014, as more cities began to adopt the definition, the number of reported rapes jumped. However, adoption of the revised definition has not yet been universal. Utah could only provide 2015 rape figures using the older definition. Other places had been using the more expansive definition for decades. The FBI had excluded Chicago’s rape figures from its annual reports because of the difference in definitions since 1984. To fill those gaps, we went back to the Chicago Police Department to collect the rape reports and add them to our data.
Finally, for the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, we removed 2,823 people from New York City’s 2001 homicide count, as advised in the Uniform Crime Reporting documentation for that year.