Competing narratives and poor information plague national discourse about public safety, making it difficult to reach a political consensus.
Even while gangs increasingly mug, carjack, and gun people down on the streets of many major cities, fentanyl poisoning deaths take 100,000 American lives, and mass murder incidents happen with unsettling regularity, perceptions of crime are highly influenced by partisanship. Gallup finds that when a Democrat is president, Republicans see crime as more of a problem than do Democrats, with the reverse happening when a Republican is in the White House.
Competing narratives and poor information plague the national discussion over public safety. This makes it difficult to reach a political consensus on what should be done. Even as Gallup’s polling shows the belief that “crime is increasing locally is now at the highest point,” it notes, “In absolute terms, Americans have for decades exhibited a marked tendency to say that crime is increasing rather than decreasing, year in and year out.”
It’s difficult enough that public perception of crime is often untethered from reality, it’s even worse when the government agencies that are supposed to report, gather, and analyze crime are failing at an alarming rate.
The left-leaning criminal justice nonprofit The Marshall Project, in commenting on the FBI’s annual release of crime statistics last November, noted, “The nation’s most thorough crime data collection program concluded it’s possible crime went up, went down or stayed the same.” Why the uncertainty? It “largely stems from the fact that 2021’s data was more incomplete than any in recent memory. … This year about 7,000 police agencies, covering about 35% of the U.S. population were missing.” To address the massive holes in the data from large cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, the Justice Department simply made an estimate.
“In some cases,” Marshall noted, “the FBI didn’t even have enough information to make an estimation.”
Why the huge amount of missing arrest data? Two reasons. First, the FBI finally switched fully over to a new reporting system, the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The FBI had been accepting data in a format that was nearly 100 years old, and 2021 was the first year the reports from police departments — entirely voluntary — had to be in the new format. But there’s another disturbing reason some police departments don’t report data: It could make them or the left-wing politicians overseeing them look bad.
As a result, the FBI did not publish any state-level violent crime numbers for California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. Further, the entire West region lacked an estimate of violent crimes, murders, and aggravated assaults. Thus, when some, mostly on the left, argue that crime is going down, it’s a highly suspect claim.
I asked Julie Warren, my colleague at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who works as the deputy director for the Right on Crime initiative, about persistent non-reporting of crime data by police departments. She said that a non-reporting department, such as the San Francisco Police Department, could be dissuaded from reporting arrests because the district attorney refuses to press charges on most arrestees, resulting in a dismal closure rate for the department — 100 suspects arrested, three charged, one convicted.
Until he was recalled in a July 8, 2022, election, San Francisco’s DA was Soros-backed radical leftist Chesa Boudin. One can easily imagine the San Francisco PD simply throwing in the towel on all but the most egregious crimes in the City by the Bay.
In addition, Soros DAs run several other major prosecutorial offices, with Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Austin, Dallas, San Antonio, St. Louis, New York, Baltimore, Albuquerque, Orlando, and three urban counties in Northern Virginia suffering increases in crime as DAs quickly allow the accused to walk.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a big overlap between entities that don’t report crime statistics to the FBI and Soros prosecutors — no report, no crime.
Yet, even with the incomplete 2021 FBI crime statistics showing what appears to be little change in crime rates from 2020 — murder up 4 percent, overall violent crime down 1 percent — only half of violent crimes are even reported. In addition to the FBI’s arrest database, since 1973, the Justice Department runs a separate crime victimization survey. This less well-known measure has consistently shown higher rates of violent crime than law enforcement agencies report to the FBI.
I asked Warren about this, and she noted that crime victims who live in high-risk communities where liberal DAs or basic cash bail policies operate have strong incentives not to report crime. Should they report the local gang member who robbed their shop or mugged them, the gang member, if arrested, will quickly make bail — being in a gang means having friends who will bail you out — and who will then come looking to exact revenge. The same goes for domestic violence victims whose abusive boyfriends may come back to beat them, or worse.
One solution to this problem would be to introduce risk assessments in bail. Risk assessments look at two things: the likelihood the defendant will show up for trial and the public safety risk the defendant poses to the community. Unfortunately, the left, as well as the bail bond industry, is almost universally opposed to risk assessments in bail, claiming that they are racially biased. While some risk assessments are essentially a proprietary black box and may contain a racial element in scoring, there are plenty of open-source risk assessments that do not use race or ethnicity.
Before a DA can decide to press charges, and before someone charged with a crime can make bail, they have to be arrested — or, even better, deterred from committing a crime in the first place. Unfortunately, the “Defund the Police” movement has reduced resources available for policing in some cities while simultaneously discouraging police from patrolling in high-crime areas.
Ja’Ron Smith, a former special assistant to President Trump for domestic policy who now leads Public Safety Solutions for America, a coalition dedicated to principles that solve violent crime, said:
It’s important to have the best data available so we can make educated decisions on how to best solve for violent crime. Crime is a local problem. Studies show that violent crime is highly concentrated amongst a very small network of people within each city, so we need to leverage data to create evidence-based policy solutions to make communities safer, rather than playing politics with people’s lives.
Seattle, Washington, has been at the forefront of anti-police policies. Since 2020, the Seattle Police Department lost 525 officers to resignations and retirement and is finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified recruits. Violent crime in 2022 was the highest in 15 years. Murders were up 24 percent in 2022 compared to the year before. Motor vehicle theft was up 30 percent, with almost 70 percent of vehicles never recovered. And last June, the city police’s sexual assault unit was so short of staff that it stopped working on new sexual assault cases.
Should the collapse in local policing continue in Seattle and other major cities around the nation, how long it might be before governors consider deploying the National Guard to back up overwhelmed law enforcement departments?