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Why examining U.S. crime rates isn’t as straightforward as you might think : NPR


Midterm voters are inundated with political ads, and most of them focus on crime. NPR’s Rachel Martin talks to data analyst Jeff Asher about what’s going on with crime rates.



RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you’re living in a pinch right now, midterm campaign ads are almost impossible to avoid. And a lot of them focus on crime.

(MONTAGE’S SITE)

MARK RONCHETTI: Enough is enough, and I will never apologize for supporting blue. As governor, I will go after criminals, not police.

VAL DEMINGS: In the Senate, I will defend Florida from bad ideas like taking down the police. That is crazy.

THE DIFFERENT PERSON: On November 8, vote like your life depends on it. It just can.

MARTIN: Three-quarters of voters, polled by Politico and Morning Consult recently, say violent crime is a big problem in the United States. Jeff Asher is a data analyst specializing in crime statistics. He’s worked with the Pentagon, the CIA, and the New Orleans Police Department, and he’s joined us. Thank you so much for staying with us.

JEFF ASHER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Is the crime rate in America increasing?

QUESTION: We don’t really have a general definition of what crime means when you ask that question.

MARTIN: Aha.

QUESTION: If you’re talking about crime with the letter C, as what the FBI measures as the national crime rate, you’re talking about seven main types of crime, and the majority of them are property crimes. And property crime has been on a steady decline for 20 years. This is theft, auto theft and burglary…

MARTIN: Got it.

QUESTION: … What constitutes a property crime?

MARTIN: Okay.

Q: When you talk about violent crime, you are talking about more serious assault, murder, rape, and robbery. That’s been down since the ’90s. It’s gone up a bit in 2020. It could go up a bit or even in 2021. But even if we’re talking about crime, it’s not. what people think. What they really think about is murder and gun violence. And murder accounts for about 0.2% of all major crimes annually. But it’s really the thing – it’s the crime that most harms society. That’s what people tend to be most interested in.

And so when we talk about murder, yes, we’ve seen a significant increase over the last two years. It’s already up nearly 30% in 2020. It’s probably already up around 4 or 5% nationally by 2021. And this year, we could see a 4 to 5% drop from 2021. So, we’re still at this level really really high now that’s up from where we were in 2019. Now, if we go back to the ’90s, we’re still significantly down 30 or 40%, but they We are much taller than we were three or four years ago.

MARTIN: And as you said, there’s a different emotional element to people’s perception of homicide rates. Even if it doesn’t affect them, a small bullish bar can create a heightened sense that things are getting scarier everywhere.

QUESTION: And I think what has given it so much effect in the midterms is that the increase in homicides in 2020 is really a national phenomenon. It happened in big cities. It happened in small cities. It happened in counties that voted for Trump. It happened in counties that voted for Biden. It’s really everywhere. And so I think most places in America are struggling with at least some increase in gun violence over the last two years, which puts it at the forefront of elections as they are going. now.

MARTIN: How reliable is the data? I mean, is it difficult for cities, municipalities, counties to transfer this information and make it public?

QUESTION: So it is both reliable and unreliable. At the city level, for most major cities, they tend to produce it in a way that can be achieved in some format in near real time – talk about in the last few weeks or months or quarters. before. When you’re talking about smaller places – small cities, suburbs, sheriff’s offices – it’s a lot harder to get the data. And then when you’re talking about what the FBI collects – the 18,000 law enforcement agencies report to the FBI each year, the FBI collects it and reports 10 months after the fact. So it’s really hard to get country-level estimates in any timeframe where you can understand these trends as they happen. And we actually had this change in murder, which happened almost overnight and lasted for two years, and we couldn’t measure progress against it or regress on it by because at this really inopportune time, our data collection has suddenly taken a turn for the worse.

MARTIN: What are the broader societal consequences of not having reliable data on crime rates, especially in the run-up to national elections?

QUESTION: Well, you get a lot of talk about crime X going up and the other candidate saying no, crime X not having. And it’s a lot harder to refute that. I get a lot of questions, like, why do we need this data? And this is a problem. It’s an issue we don’t fully understand. It’s a problem that we don’t quite know how to solve, and we don’t have the ability to measure it in any way so that we can get a good sense of what’s going on in the hands of researchers and policy making so that we can determine what works, what doesn’t, what to invest in, what not to invest in?

MARTIN: This is a bit out of your way, but what would you say to a family member who might come up to you and say, Jeff, what do I do? I–you know, I’m inundated with all the ads that are telling me crime has increased. I myself have not seen evidence of that. But now I’m, like, scared, and it’s going to affect my vote. I mean, how do you help people sort through all these messages right now?

QUESTION: I think it’s really hard. And if, you know – that’s what we do, we try to build tools to assess, both at the local and national levels, what’s going on. I’m a data analyst, so feedback to someone – you know, if a family member or friend comes up to me and asks, you know, I want to know what’s going on in this area or I want to understand what’s going on in terms of gun violence in my city, I’ll send them a chart. Probably not the most effective means of communication, but it’s how we understand what’s going on and whether what’s happening is effective – is to look at the data behind it. And without that, we get a lot of politicians who are saying a lot of things often based on anecdotes or the emotions of the time, and then we get a lot of misinformation and poor decisions are made in the name of dataless arguments (ph).

MARTIN: Jeff Asher is the co-founder of AH Datalytics. We appreciate your time. Thank you.

ASHER: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABY HERNANDEZ “ENTRANCED (INSTRUMENTAL)”)

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