FBI Reports Violent Crime Surge, But What Does It Mean?

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Surging violence in a handful of big cities drove up overall reports of violent crime in the U.S. for the second straight year in 2016, according to FBI data released Monday.

Reports of violent crimes increased nationally by 4.1 percent last year, and homicides rose by 8.6 percent. The increases were comparable to the FBI’s 2015 data, which reported a 10.8 percent increase in homicides and a 3.9 percent increase in overall violence.

Homicides made up just 1.4 percent of the total violent crimes reported last year, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. Aggravated assault made up 64.3 percent of the total, robbery 26.6 percent and rape 7.7.

Reports of property crime decreased in 2016 by 1.3 percent, the 14th straight year of decline in those crimes. About 7.9 million property crimes were reported, with losses (excluding arson) of about $15.6 billion.

The politicization of crime under President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who have warned of a national crime wave that others say does not exist, prompted pointed reactions to the annual data release.

The new data “shows crime remains near all-time lows across the country,” said Ronal Serpas, chairman of Law Enforcement Leaders and former superintendent of police in New Orleans. He acknowledged the homicide increase in 2016 but said 2017 statistics indicate that violence may be ebbing.

“False narratives about a national crime wave will not help,” Serpas said. “They make it harder for law enforcement to implement proven tactics that address the real issues, instead of the myths.”

Yet the New York Times notes that police officials and criminologists continue to express puzzlement about the upsurge. There is disagreement not only about the reasons for the increases, but also about how law enforcement should respond and whether the figures represent a blip or the start of a long-term trend.

“This is ominous,” Mark Kleiman, a criminologist at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management, told the Times. “What you worry about is that the trend is broken, and the numbers are going to go back up. A 20 percent increase in homicides over the past two years is not trivial. We’ve got what looks like a serious problem here.”

The Brennan Center for Justice had a more measured reaction, noting that Chicago accounted for one-fifth of the total national homicide increase last year. Violence in Baltimore and Las Vegas also helped drive the increase.

“The FBI’s data show trends similar to what we’ve found for crime, murder, and violence in 2016,” said Ames Grawert of  the Brennan Center’s Justice Program said in a statement. “Crime remains near historic lows, with an uptick in murder and violence driven in part by problems in some of our nation’s largest cities. At the same time, other cities like New York are keeping crime down.”

“The data debunk claims from the Trump Administration that crime is out of control, but do highlight cities where violence is concerning,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “But by painting the entire country with too broad a brush, the President Trump and Attorney General Sessions are peddling fear and distracting from the frank and honest conversations needed to find solutions to these real problems.”

The center released its own analysis of the FBI report Monday.

“The latest data undercut claims of a national crime wave,” Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president at Koch Industries, said in a statement. “But they make clear that work needs to be done to stop these troubling local spikes in violence, and persistently high rates of violent crime in a few major cities. State and local leaders from across the country have evidence-driven solutions, and we should learn from the dozens of cities and states that have successfully reduced crime, incarceration, and recidivism together.”

Trump referred to “American carnage” in his inauguration speech in January, and he and Sessions have staked out a law-and-order agenda that many see as hearkening to the controversial lock-’em-up strategies of the crack-fueled crime spike of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“There are pockets of increased violence across the country that demand an increased response from all levels of government,” Adam Gelb, director of the public safety project at The Pew Charitable Trusts, told the New York Times. “But there is no indication that we’re in the midst of a crime wave, and no justification to return to the failed policies of the past.”

He added: “What’s going on? No one really knows. And if someone says they do know, you ought to be deeply suspicious. It’s too early to tell anything.”

David J. Krajicek is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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