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Murders Rose At Their Fastest Pace In A Quarter-Century Last Year

It’s official: Murder rose across the U.S. last year at the fastest pace since 1990, according to data released by the FBI on Monday. There were an estimated 15,696 murders1 in 2015, 1,532 more than in 2014 and the most recorded in a calendar year since 2008.

The increase isn’t a surprise; other reports, based on partial data, have shown the same trend. But Monday’s report provides the first reliable, nationwide figures on an issue that has emerged as a major topic in this year’s presidential campaign. Donald Trump has cited rising murder rates in major U.S. cities as evidence that criminal-justice reform efforts, such as the pullback of “stop and frisk” policing in New York and other cities, are failing.

“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement,” Trump said in his speech at the Republican Convention in July.

But while Monday’s report confirms the increase in murder, it doesn’t support Trump’s larger claim. The rate of other forms of crime, including violent crime, remained near the historic lows achieved in 2013. The overall violent crime rate — which includes assault, robbery and rape in addition to murder — rose 3 percent. The rate of nonviolent property crimes fell 3.4 percent.

The new data, part of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report program, is based on voluntary reports from nearly 18,000 police departments and other law-enforcement agencies nationwide. In addition to crime rates for certain major crime types, the annual “Crime in the U.S.” report provides data on arrests, clearance rates (the share of crimes that are solved) and police staffing. The report showed that police departments in cities shrank slightly in 2015 despite efforts by departments to rebuild their ranks after enduring large losses during the recession.

Here are a few more observations from Monday’s report:

Broad-based rise in murder

The increase in murder was remarkably widespread. Of the 82 cities with populations over 250,000 in 2014 or 2015,2 52 experienced a rise in murder last year; murder fell in only 26. (Four cities stayed the same.) Murder rose by double digits in 29 big cities last year while dropping by double digits in just four of them. Three cities (Indianapolis; Louisville, Kentucky, and Omaha, Nebraska) had more murders in 2015 than in any of the last 40 years. Preliminary evidence suggests the murder rate is continuing to rise in 2016, at least in the largest cities.

Murder rose in cities run by both political parties. Murder rose in 63 percent of the big cities with a Democratic mayor (33 of 52) and 85 percent of those led by a Republican (17 of 20); the two sets of cities saw murders rise at roughly the same pace.3

The increase pushed the murder rate — the number of killings per 100,000 people — up to 4.9, from 4.4 in 2014. The increase comes on the heels of nearly two decades of continuous decline in the national murder rate; 2014’s murder rate was the lowest recorded national murder rate since the FBI began keeping the statistic in 1960. Indeed, 2015’s rate in the U.S. is roughly the same as it was in 2010 and less than half what it was when the murder rate peaked nationally in 1980.

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It isn’t clear what caused the rise of murder in 2015. Some cities, most notably Baltimore, St. Louis and Chicago, experienced large jumps in murder that began after police-related deaths. That has led some experts, including FBI Director James Comey, to suggest the rise in murder could be linked to police in some cities becoming less proactive out of fear of a viral video sparking protests. The rise in murder in most cities, however, defies easy explanation, and it is likely that there is no one cause for why murder rose nationally in 2015.

Other crimes

In contrast to murder, other major crimes measured by the FBI behaved relatively normally in 2015.

UCR measures crimes in two overarching categories: person (or violent) crimes made up of murder, assault, robbery and rape; and property crimes made up of burglary, theft, motor vehicle theft and arson.4 Both categories of crime have fallen a long way since peaking in the early 1990s. Violent crime rose slightly in 2015, driven by the increase in murder as well as an increase in assault. The assault rate rose by 9 assaults per 100,000 people, the largest one-year jump in that rate since 1992 after reaching a 40-year low in 2014. Assaults still occurred at a slightly lower rate in 2015 than they did in 2012 despite the increase last year.

Property crimes dropped in 2015 driven by sizable declines in burglaries and thefts. The table below shows how violent crime rates for each type of crime in 2015 compared to the rates of those crimes in 1990 and 2014.

CRIME 1990 2014 2015 CHANGE FROM 1990-2015 CHANGE FROM 2014-15
Murder 9.4 4.4 4.9 -4.5 +0.5
Robbery 256.3 101.3 101.9 -154.4 +0.6
Assault 422.9 229.2 237.8 -185.1 +8.6
All violent crime 729.6 361.6 372.6 -357.0 +11.0
Violent crime rates per 100,000 people since 1990

Source: FBI

Drug crimes

The number of narcotics-related arrests5 recorded by the FBI has risen considerably since the 1960s, increasing 3,000 percent from 1966 to 2006. In the past decade, however, that trend has reversed, though narcotics arrests remain high by historical standards. Drug arrests in 2015 fell to their lowest level since 1995 as the decadelong steady decline in drug arrests picked up a bit of steam. Overall drug arrests have fallen 21.2 percent from 2006 to 2015.

The share of narcotics arrests for marijuana has fallen steadily from 45.8 percent in 2010 to 38.6 percent in 2015. The total number of marijuana arrests is also falling due in part to the legalization and decriminalization of marijuana in various states over the last few years. But the decline has made only a modest dent in the big increase in marijuana arrests during the 1990s and 2000s.

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Police department size

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In the aftermath of the recent recession, cities across the country reduced police staffing, partly reversing two decades of growth in the number of sworn officers nationwide. Police departments began hiring again in 2014, when the number of sworn police officers rose 3.6 percent, but the number dipped 0.2 percent in 2015. Big cities have had a particularly hard time rebuilding their departments. Seven of the biggest departments — those with over 750 officers — still have at least 15 percent fewer officers than in 2009. Atlanta is the only large police department with over 15 percent growth from 2009 to 2015.

Further reading:

Gun Deaths in America

Were There 6 Percent More Murders Last Year, Or 16 Percent?

How To Make Sense Of Conflicting, Confusing And Misleading Crime Statistics

Murder Rates Don’t Tell Us Everything About Gun Violence

Scare Headlines Exaggerated The U.S. Crime Wave

Footnotes

  1. The FBI estimates national crime figures for agencies submitting less than a full year of data. Murder in this article is synonymous with ‘criminal homicide’ which the FBI defines as “the willful (nonnegligent) killing of one human being by another. Deaths caused by negligence, attempts to kill, assaults to kill, suicides, and accidental deaths are excluded.” This figure includes nonnegligent manslaughter.
  2. There were four cities with populations over 250,000 in 2014 that did not report murder numbers in 2015 (Raleigh, North Carolina; Portland, Oregon; Newark, New Jersey, and Cleveland). Media reports provided murder counts for those cities.
  3. Three cities were led by independent mayors and five cities (Anchorage; Chula Vista, California; Jacksonville, Florida; Toledo, Ohio, and Wichita, Kansas) replaced a mayor of one party with the other in 2015.
  4. The FBI changed the definition of rape in 2013, which has led to two legacy measurements and a revised measurement. Additionally, reporting of arson varies from agency to agency, according to the FBI. As such, these two crimes are not being included in this analysis given the above questions about the accuracy of the data. The raw numbers of rapes are included for the official count of violent crimes on the FBI’s official UCR data website, though arson is not included in official property crime count due to underreporting.
  5. Narcotics arrests includes arrests, citations and summonses for narcotics violations.

Jeff Asher is a crime analyst based in New Orleans and used to work for the city as a crime analyst. He runs the NOLA Crime News data analysis blog.

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