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What’s dangerous is America’s lack of crime data

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Picture: Michael Brochstein/Sipa US – Washington DC, United States. An American flag flying over the Capitol. The US is, to a shocking extent, flying blind when it comes to crime, according to a July report from the Brennan Centre for Justice, the writer says. It noted: ‘More than six months into 2022, national-level data on crime in 2021 remains unavailable’.

By Matthew Yglesias

Crime (in the United States) is on the political agenda in a big way this year, with Republicans zeroing in on it as their favourite topic now that gasoline prices are moderating.

Which naturally raises the question: Is crime rising? To which the shocking answer is – nobody knows. Not because anything unusual is happening, but simply because the usual state of America’s information on crime and policing is incredibly poor.

Contrast this state of affairs with the amount of data available on the US economy. There are monthly updates on job creation, the unemployment rate and multiple indexes of inflation. Commodity prices are publicised daily. Reports on gross national product come out quarterly, with timely revisions as more data comes in. Policymakers benefit from a deeply informed debate, enriched by commentary from academics and other observers.

But on crime the US is, to a shocking extent, flying blind. As a July report from the Brennan Centre for Justice noted: “More than six months into 2022, national-level data on crime in 2021 remains unavailable.”

There is some data. In America’s largest cities, the murder rate rose in 2021. And since national crime trends almost invariably follow the trends observed in this sample of 22 cities, analysts are confident that there was a nationwide increase in murders last year. It’s also very likely that there was an overall increase in shootings and violent assaults. But beyond that, it’s hard to say.

It’s possible to draw sharper conclusions by going back to 2020, the most recent year for which there is official data. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting programme makes clear that there was a very large increase in murdering in 2020. It also shows that the rise took place across the board – murders rose 20 percent in rural counties and 20 percent in suburban ones, so whatever went wrong can’t be pinned entirely on “Democrat mayors” or big-city politics.

That said, the increase in central cities with 250,000 or more people was even larger – about 34 percent. With hard numbers rather than statistical imputations in hand, it’s clear both that there was a city-specific problem – presumably related to the fallout from George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent national wave of protests – and that whatever that problem was, it doesn’t explain the majority of the increased killings.

For 2021, the picture gets much fuzzier. Murder rose in big cities, but by a much smaller amount than it did the prior year. And in smaller communities? Who knows.

For 2022, researchers tell me the best source is the data assembled by a private company called AH Datalytics. Its team basically looks at 92 large cities that publicly report murder data in a somewhat timely matter and puts the numbers into a spreadsheet. This ends up pretty messy, since as of this writing some cities (Kansas City, Washington) have updated information from as recently as September 14, while others (San Antonio, Shreveport in Louisiana.) are updated only to March 31. And of course this rough-and-ready calculus doesn’t allow for comparison of crime trends in central cities with suburbs and rural areas.

Nonetheless, for the record, murder is running at a pace that’s about 3.5 percent lower this year than last year.

The dearth of information is a problem not only for rigour-minded policymakers. It also leaves the political arena open for manipulation by demagogues. Since nobody actually knows in real time what’s happening, anecdotes can just stand in for made-up fears. Since the very real murder surge of 2020 now has people primed to believe “crime is out of control” narratives, any particular instance of violence can be used to support that story.

What all this anecdata fails to recognise is that the US is a gigantic country, so even in a very low-crime year like 2014, there were multiple people being murdered every day. A person could have issued daily updates painting a terrifying portrait of life in the US even at a time when violence was at its lowest ebb.

By the same token, when murder really was soaring in 2020, it was easy for progressives to stay in ideologically convenient denial for far too long, since it was genuinely impossible to actually prove that it was happening until much later. The people who dismissed the anecdotal evidence of rising crime were, in that case, mistaken. But the Republicans who are stoking fears of rising crime right now also appear to be mistaken. And the lack of information about geographical patterns in murder trends means no one has much ability to assess what social or policy factors may be in play.

What makes this all especially maddening is that collecting this information in a timely manner shouldn’t be that difficult. Police departments know how many murders are committed in their jurisdiction. That information is stored on computers. It doesn’t need to be delivered to the Department of Justice via carrier pigeon.

The DOJ should be given some money to create a system that can be easily updated by law enforcement agencies, and actually filing that information in a timely way should be a condition of receiving federal police grants. A small team at the Bureau of Justice Statistics could have the job of phoning up departments who haven’t done it and “reminding” them to update the numbers. And then the data could be released on a regular basis in a machine-readable form – the same way numbers for jobs, inflation, and other major economic statistics are.

Knowing what’s actually happening would not, by itself, solve America’s crime problems. But successful efforts to reduce violence, such as the one in New York City in the 1990s, were driven by a commitment to rigorous measurement.

A serious federal investment in crime data collection is no panacea, and it’s not exactly a winning political slogan. But it would be a huge boost to all kinds of crime-control efforts.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans”.

This article was first published in The Washington Post.