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Playing politics with crime figures to inflate police budgets

Police tape hangs across the street in front

Police tape hangs across the street in front of a house. Credit: Getty Images / Larry W. Smith

‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics,” Mark Twain wrote more than 100 years ago. And that still holds today, especially as it relates to crime data.

Are homicides up or down? How many more shootings from this month to last — or compared to the same time period last year? In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has clashed with the media over whether the city is safe or crime-ridden. The job security of New York City mayors has long hinged on crime numbers. Things aren’t too different at the national level. Dark forecasts of a looming crime-aggedon have run rampant, from newspapers and think tanks to federal officials and even the president-elect.

Is any of it true? First, one has to recognize how politicized crime has become, and how the media shape perception. A 2014 Gallup Poll published a few months after police-involved deaths in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri, found that most Americans believed the national crime rate was going up — despite the fact that crime overall was going down. The public’s view of crime was, according to Gallup, “at odds with reality.” What could be the cause of the discrepancy? Media coverage of crime played a role. Despite a decade of declining crime statistics, headlines mentioned homicides about as many times in 2013 as in 1990 — when the homicide rate was much higher.

During one of the presidential debates, Donald Trump warned of rampant crime across the country. A recent Brennan Center for Justice report on crime showed that national crime rates were at, or near, historic lows. Focusing on 30 cities, the authors concluded that despite small increases in violent crime (with the exception of Chicago, where homicides have risen significantly), overall crime data “undercut” media reports framing crime as “out of control.”

Part of the doomsayer crowd was the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Senior fellow Heather Mac Donald popularized the concept of a “Ferguson effect” last year to explain crime increases as a result of national scrutiny of police departments after killings of unarmed black men. She got the term from a police chief in St. Louis who was dealing with fallout over the death of Michael Brown in 2014. In other words, Black Lives Matter protests were fueling crime. In New York, the police department directly blamed protesters for the shooting deaths of two police officers in December of 2014. After the shootings of five Dallas police officers this year, there was talk about a “war on cops,” which is strange considering in-the-line-of-duty deaths have consistently gone down for years.

While these ideas serve somewhat predictable conservative talking points, FBI Director James Comey inflated the “Ferguson effect” and its related ideas when he suggested that a “viral video effect,” or the sharing of police brutality videos, was leading to more homicides in certain cities.

A political backlash that lays crime and homicides at the feet of demonstrators is perhaps to be expected. But where can one find a sober assessment of crime amid all the finger pointing? For those who uncritically support law enforcement, your ears might perk up at Comey and Mac Donald’s musings. A crime-ridden America may sound right if the legitimacy of law enforcement is being questioned. Maybe then the question isn’t the numbers, but rather our own biases.

When there are blips in crime, even at or close to record low numbers, the most fearmongery voices among us shriek at a fevered pitch. That momentum, in fact, fuels aggressive policing policies and bloated police budgets. It also empowers a wave of voices, like Trump’s, fluent in the racialized dog whistle politics of “law and order,” that distort reality.

Josmar Trujillo is a trainer, writer and activist with the Coalition to End Broken Windows.

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