The FBI’s national crime data for 2015–which is expected to show a substantial overall increase in murders–will be released on the morning of the first presidential debate, likely providing a dramatic new talking point for Donald Trump.
For months, Trump has been pointing, ominously, to rising violence in Chicago and other cities, and arguing that Americans are at risk and that Democrats have failed black Americans in particular.
How large the nationwide murder increase might be for all of 2015 is still unclear, but some estimates would make the increase the largest since 1990, or even 1968.
Whatever the precise nationwide increase is, criminologist Richard Rosenfeld said, it will almost certainly be “a much larger rise in homicide than we’ve seen in many, many years”.
Trump, who has branded himself the “law and order candidate”, pledged in his July speech at the Republican national convention that “the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end.”
“Inner-city crime is reaching record levels,” he tweeted in late August. “African Americans will vote for Trump because they know I will stop the slaughter going on!”
Barack Obama and other Democrats have pushed back that overall crime and murder fell to historic lows during Obama’s presidency, and that the troubling murder increase has been concentrated in just a few cities.
Murders increased nearly 17% across the nation’s 56 largest cities in 2015, Rosenfeld found in a justice department-funded study published in June. The increase was “real and nearly unprecedented”, Rosenfeld concluded.
Rosenfeld’s study found the murder increase was mostly driven by an even smaller number of cities–just 10–including Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee and Washington DC. Other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, continue to see murder numbers at or close to historic lows.
Even with a sharp national uptick in murders in 2015, violence in the US will still be at historic lows. The country is dramatically safer than it was in the early 1990s, when close to 25,000 Americans were murdered every year. In recent years, even as the population has grown, the number of murders has fallen to close to 14,000 a year.
While the steepest decrease in violence came in the late 1990s, murders have continued to fall during Obama’s two terms, according to FBI data, with more than 2,000 fewer Americans murdered in 2014 than they were in 2008, the year before Obama took office.
An uptick in murders in the nation’s 30 largest cities was not accompanied by spikes in overall crime or violent crime, a preliminary analysis of crime data by the Brennan Center concluded.
Rosenfeld projected that 2015’s national increase could be as high as 13%–a very rough estimate, he said–while Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, projected that the increase might be between 6% and 12%.
If nationwide murders rose 6% over all of 2015, that would be the greatest single-year percentage increase since 1990, according to FBI murder data. If murders rose 13%, that would be the largest percentage increase in murders in the last half-century, larger even than 1968, when murders rose 12.75%.
But overall murders would have to spike 73%, not 6%, to actually put the US back at the record-breaking murder totals of the early 1990s.
At the same time, the murder increases in a few large cities have been devastating and historic.
In Baltimore, 130 more people were murdered in 2015 than in 2014, driving the city’s homicide rate to its highest ever level. So far this year, Baltimore’s higher levels of violence have continued, with roughly the same number of non-fatal shootings this year than last year through 2 September, and only a slightly lower number of homicides.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said he was skeptical of how significant the murder uptick in 2015 might be.
“It’s a one year increase . . . and it’s an increase from the lowest level we’ve had in 50 years,” he said. “To some extent, we’re a victim of our own success.
“If you go on a crash diet and you lose 50lbs and then you put on a couple, it doesn’t mean that you’re fat.”
But Thomas Abt, a Harvard Kennedy School researcher who worked on violence prevention policy for the state of New York and in Obama’s justice department, said he expected that the release of the FBI’s 2015 data would “change the narrative” about urban homicide.
“It will be no longer possible to deny that the increase is real, significant, and nationwide in scope,” he said.
As urban homicide received more attention, he said, he hoped the conversation on how to address the problem would explore the relationship between gun violence, police reform, and mass incarceration.
“This is not a crime wave, as some conservatives say. This is a specific issue with urban violence,” Abt said. “I think it’s quite appropriate to be concerned. It’s not appropriate to panic.”
The same statistics that could bring more attention to the devastating violence in Baltimore and Chicago could also be used for fear-mongering, other experts said.
Overstating crime increases “drives unnecessary panic and fear, and people in the public, and politicians, don’t make good decisions when it’s coming from a place of fear as opposed to a place of reason,” said Chettiar.
“I imagine Trump will continue making the same statements that he’s making, which have been exaggerating the increase in murders,” she said. “The one thing that I would hope is there would be more of an effort to fact-check him by the debate moderators or by Secretary Clinton.”
While the media has put Trump’s crime claims in context, Chettiar said, she thought other politicians had not yet been forceful enough in questioning his analysis.
“It’s much harder to understand nuance than to just claim that there’s a crime wave,” she said. “I think the appropriate response is to say, there are increases in select cities, we need to address the problems in these cities, but this is not a need for national alarm.”
“The data is probably going to be nuanced enough where there’s wiggle room for both sides to further their agenda,” said Eric Piza, a former police department crime analyst and now an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Because whatever increase the nation sees is likely to be driven by particular cities, the most appropriate response will be localized, Piza said, “rather than an across-the-board increase in law enforcement activity”.
Trump has described his preferred solutions to rising violence in the vaguest terms, saying last month that Chicago police could stop the city’s nearly 50% murder increase “in one week” simply by being “tougher”.
Trump said he had talked to a “rough tough” Chicago cop who had described how to fix the city’s murder problem. Chicago’s police department responded by saying that Trump had not met with any high-ranking officer in the department, the Chicago Tribune reported.
In July, Heather Mac Donald, a conservative writer who popularized the idea of the “Ferguson effect”, fact-checked Trump’s claim in his convention speech that the rising violence was the result of the Obama administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.
“The federal government is usually only a marginal player in actual crime fighting, which is overwhelmingly a local function,” Mac Donald told the Guardian.
Stephen Fischer, a spokesman for the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services division, said the fact that the presidential debate is on 26 September “was not a factor” in deciding a release date.
Several crime experts, including Fox, laughed aloud when they were told that the FBI’s data released coincided with the date of the first presidential debate.
“It’s always a Monday,” Fox said. “There’s reason to believe it was a coincidence.”