FBI data released Monday suggests that the violent crime rate in the U.S. remains on a decades-long downward trend, falling by 3.9 percent in 2018. Overall, the violent crime rate has plunged by more than 50 percent since the highwater mark of the early 1990s.
The drops came across categories of violent offenses, including murder, non-negligent manslaughter and robbery, and property crimes like burglary, larceny and vehicle thefts, while aggravated assault numbers remained about flat. The rate for rape bucked this trend however, up slightly for 2018, and in each of the last six years.
Crimes in the U.S. Continue to Decrease
New FBI data show the U.S. violent crime rate fell in 2017 and 2018, after increases in 2015 and 2016. It’s now half as high as in 1991. Property crime rates continued to decline, following a decades-long trend.
The overall numbers, recorded by police departments across the country and compiled annually by the FBI, are welcome news for crime researchers like Ames Grawert, who closely monitored an uptick in violence in 2015 and 2016.
“That's a really good sign that the long term trend towards greater safety is not in fact reversed, and that we’re moving past whatever happened in 2015 and 2016,” said Grawert, senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute at New York University’s School of Law. “It’s a reminder that two years isn’t a trend, and two years doesn’t break a trend.”
Mostly fueled by a spike in homicides in a handful of large cities, the nation’s violent crime rate increased by 3.3 percent in 2015 and 3.5 percent in 2016 before dropping. Some opponents of criminal justice reform seized on the two-year uptick as proof of what they called a new cresting crime wave. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in early 2017 that his “best judgment” was that these data represented a “dangerous permanent trend.”
That spike also fueled the emergence of the so-called “Ferguson Effect” hypothesis, that the Black Lives Matter protest movement had prompted demoralized police officers to cut back on proactive policing strategies in response to scrutiny from the general public. Then-FBI director James Comey described it as “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement.”
University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld, who authored several studies on the spike, has found that something akin to a “Ferguson Effect” likely did contribute to increased murder rates in a handful of cities, like Chicago and Baltimore, but that the “demoralized cops” explanation was unsupported by the data. A study he co-authored in March found “no evidence” that arrest rates had any effect on homicide rates in the cities and time period examined, a correlation one would expect to see if a dip in proactive policing was really to blame.
“The uptick in homicide was more likely associated with a crisis in police legitimacy: People, especially in disadvantaged minority communities, drawing even further back from the police,” Rosenfeld told The Marshall Project. “There is an avalanche of research right now in criminology pointing in that direction, that declining legitimacy is associated with increases in crime.” Predatory violence might increase, for example, because offenders believe victims and witnesses will not contact the police to report incidents.
Violent crime did not decrease across the board in 2018, however, and one category is in the midst of a slow but persistent six-year upward swing: rape. For the 2013 statistics the FBI changed its outdated parameters of rape—then defined as the forcible “carnal knowledge of a female”—to a more modern definition structured around consent, rather than force. Ever since, the rate has been on a steady surge, up more than 18 percent in that period.
Violent Crimes per 100,000 People
The FBI tracks four categories as violent crimes: murder, rape, robbery and assault. Since 2016, the rates for all those offenses have decreased, except rape. Last year, the rate for rapes rose to 42.6 per 100,000 people.
Grawert and Rosenfeld agree that the rape numbers are attention-grabbing. “Rape increasing every year since the definition change is not just statistical variation. That's a trend that's worth talking about,” Grawert said. Rosenfeld added, “I think the increase is real. I don't think it's just some measurement artifact.”
The new FBI data comes on the heels of a startling jump in reported rapes in the National Crime Victimization Survey released earlier this month. The annual survey asks a random sample of Americans about their experiences as victims of crime, and the report saw rape numbers nearly double in one year. Historically, the national survey’s data is more prone to swings than the FBI’s crime data, but coupled together the results have captured the attention of criminologists.
“If you have those two indicators of crime, both pointing in the same direction, that suggests something worth taking seriously,” Grawert said.
Rape Remains the Most Unreported Violent Crime
While the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program collects data from most local law enforcement agencies, the National Criminal Victimization Survey (NCVS) estimates crime in America through survey results, and is better at indicating unreported crimes. In 2018, the survey estimates 734,630 people were raped, more than five times as many as the number collected in the UCR.
It’s not yet clear why rapes have risen so swiftly. It’s a notoriously underreported crime and many have theorized that the changing social atmosphere, including the #metoo movement and increased awareness around campus rape, may be prompting survivors to report at a higher rate. That was an especially popular thesis after the 2017 edition of the survey showed that more than 4 of every 10 rape victims said they reported their attack to police, following years in which the percentage of respondents who said they reported their rapes hovered in the 20s and 30s. But the latest survey throws that theory into question after finding a reporting rate that plummeted back to about 25 percent.
Kristen Houser, a spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said another possible outcome of that social and cultural change is assault survivors being better able to simply understand that what they’ve experienced was in fact a crime.
“We may well have more ability to recognize experiences for the crimes that they are and be able to name them, which I don't think has been true historically. And that's a result of more people talking about it, reporting on it, reading it, etc.,” Houser said.
Grawert, while convinced of the need for more study and attention, warned too of overreacting to the data. “Anytime you talk about some metric of crime increasing, there will be politicians who jump from there to ‘crime wave,’ and it's just not true,” Grawert said. “We have to be able to think at the same time, ‘There's a problem worth confronting’ and also that ‘crime remains relatively low, and it's not cause for panic’.”
Clarification: This story was updated to make clear the difference between the number of rapes reported in the crime victimization survey and the number reported to police in the FBI's Uniform Crime Report; the survey estimated five times as many as the report.