Directly lifting from Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, Donald Trump has declared himself the “law and order” candidate. At a Virginia rally Monday he said, “American police and law enforcement are all that separate civilization from total chaos and the destruction of our country as we know it.” On Tuesday he tweeted, “Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse.”
Painting a picture of an America drowning in crime-fueled anarchy serves to rationalize incidents of racial bias in policing. While Trump has not defended the actions of the police offers in the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, he has spent more time in their aftermath talking about the need to support police officers in an age of rampant crime, and no time on proposals for police reform.
But Trump’s picture is a false one. Crime is down. Way down. The rate of violent crime is at a 45-year low.
In 1970, during Nixon’s presidency, the violent crime rate (number of crimes per 100,000 people) was 363.5. It had been rising since 1961, and rose every year of Nixon’s “law and order” presidency.
It kept rising through the Carter, Reagan and Bush presidencies, peaking in 1991 at 758.2. During the Bill Clinton presidency, the violent crime began to decline, down 33 percent on his watch. It dropped another 9.5 percent under Bush II. As of 2014, the most recent year of national data from the FBI, during the Obama presidency violent crime is down 20.3 percent, for a rate of 365.5.
The decline in the murder rate is even more impressive. At 4.5, it’s the lowest since 1957, down 55 percent since its peak in 1980.
Where does the argument of a crime wave come from? Partly because some 2016 city data showed an increase in homicides in the early part of the year. But as the New York Times reported in May, “James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said the uptick represented essentially a blip in so short a time, and he said it was a reflection of how low the crime rates had dropped.”
Of course, there are areas in the country with higher crime than others. But even in Chicago, the trend over the last eight years is down. (Chicago, by the way, is actually not even in the 10 worst cities for violent crime.)
There is also the fact that public mass shootings have risen sharply in the past eight years. According the Mother Jones database, there were 15 mass shootings in public places with at least four casualties during the George W. Bush presidency, and 35 so far under Obama.
These domestic terror events are nationally traumatic and spark massive media coverage. And we certainly should demand stricter access to guns to limit the carnage. But we should also recognize they represent a sliver of the nation’s violent crime and don’t track the larger trend.
No matter what the crime rate, any racial bias in our nation’s police departments is unacceptable. But let’s not allow the Donald Trumps of the world peddle excuses for bad police behavior on the grounds that crime is out of control, when it’s not.