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Chicago police officers investigating the scene of a shooting, in 2018.
Closing Argument

Ahead of Midterms, Most Americans Say Crime is Up. What Does the Data Say?

More people than ever believe crime is up in their area, polls show. But public perception doesn’t always match reality.

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You’ve likely heard a lot about crime recently, with the midterm elections right around the corner. It’s been a major topic of campaign rhetoric and featured in a cacophony of often misleading ads. More Americans than ever now believe that crime is up in their community, according to a recent Gallup poll.

But is crime going up? The answer is not simple, and it lends itself easily to manipulation. Writing at The Conversation, criminologist Justin Nix reminds us to keep three questions in mind:

Depending on how you choose those variables, it’s possible to get wildly divergent answers about what is happening to crime.

For example, in Atlanta, from 2020 to 2021, the number of murders went up by 3%, according to the Atlanta Police Department. But if we extend the comparison to 2019, before the pandemic, murders are up by 65%. Yet compared to 1990, murders in Atlanta are down by 32%, despite steady population growth. The city’s murder total in 2021 was also roughly the same as the annual tallies in the early 2000s.

Nationally, what we know from both FBI data reported by police, and from an annual federal survey that asks about 240,000 people whether they personally were victims of crime, is that violent and property crimes have both been on a steady decline since the early 1990s. Murders did increase at a troubling and dramatic rate nationwide in 2020, and have remained elevated, but murder is the least common form of violent crime. Overall, violent crime has remained roughly static since 2010, following decades of decline.

National Crime Rates Remained Stable in Recent Years

Since the 1990s, both violent and property crime reported to the police and estimated by survey research have declined. While the violent crime rate increased slightly since the pandemic, it's a little more than half what it was three decades ago.

Public perception doesn’t line up well with reality, and hasn’t for quite some time.

It’s generally true in the media that bad things (like crime) are deemed more newsworthy than the lack of bad things. So if crime goes up in some places, remains flat in some and goes down in others, the increase is likely to get more news coverage. And when those increases get reported by national outlets, it can help create a broad impression that crime is up everywhere.

Jonathan Simon, a criminal justice law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, told us, “the higher up you go from the city and county level…the more crime becomes a demon, an abstraction that is much easier to sort of create a moral panic around.”

Interestingly, when pollsters ask people if crime is getting better or worse in their area, the party in control of the White House seems to matter a great deal. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to believe crime was getting worse throughout the Bush and Trump presidencies, while the numbers flip-flopped during the Obama and Biden years.

Megan Brenan, a senior Research Consultant at Gallup, said that partisan polarization on crime and most other issues has been increasing since the turn of the century. “After the rallying effect from 911 wore off, people started going more to their political corners,” Brenan told The Marshall Project.

When pollsters ask people how much they worry about crime (rather than asking if crime is actually up or down) the partisan landscape looks a bit different. From 2000 through 2015, Democrats reliably reported more concern about crime than Republicans.

Republican concern about crime spiked noticeably after 2015 and again after 2020 — two moments when Black Lives Matter protests dominated the news. Simon said that’s likely not a coincidence. “Again and again in our modern history, whenever we've had any serious efforts at racial social justice movements, it's almost inexorably led to a punitive backlash,” pointing to Reconstruction after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s as other examples.

Public concern about crime doesn’t necessarily translate into a desire for a punitive response, like tougher sentencing laws, but it often does. That was true for both political parties in the 1980s and 90s, and it has been especially true of Republican rhetoric in recent years. Republicans enjoy a broad advantage over Democrats in terms of which party most voters trust to deal with crime, but this fact is also complicated by race.

Black voters — who vote for Democrats about 90% of the time in national elections — are much more likely to say that violent crime is important to their midterm vote than White or Hispanic voters, according to research from Pew. In the poll, 81% of Black voters expressed concern about violent crime — a rate higher than conservative Republicans (77%).

But polling also shows that Black Americans see criminal justice reform as a priority, and are much less trusting of the criminal justice system and police than White Americans. That raises questions as to whether Republican calls for rolling back reforms and embracing more “tough on crime” approaches will connect with many Black voters, who largely view the GOP as racist against them.

In places like Chicago, for example, persistent crime and economic stagnation have left some Black residents pessimistic about either party’s ability, or will, to make progress on these issues. “Neither politician, Republican or Democrat, represents the interests of the Black people,” Anthony Young, a 26-year-old Black man, told the Wall Street Journal.

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, He was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.

Weihua Li Twitter Email is a data reporter at The Marshall Project. She uses data analysis and visualization to tell stories about the criminal justice system. She studied journalism and comparative politics at Boston University and graduated from Columbia University with a master's degree in data journalism.

Liset Cruz Twitter Email is a freelance data research reporter at The Marshall Project. She is also an investigative Stabile fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she is currently pursuing her Master’s degree.