Americans don’t feel safe. More than half worry “a great deal” about crime and violence, the highest rate seen in 15 years. Nearly the same proportion believe shootings will become more common over the next decade. And doesn’t it feel like things are getting worse? Each week offers a new horror—the massacre in Orlando, five dead officers in Dallas, a man bleeding out before the world on Facebook Live. “Crime is out of control, and rapidly getting worse,” Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday. “Not good!”
So let’s try something. In the chart below, click the red dot and trace out your best guess for how the murder rate changed between 1985 and 2014. I’ll show you the rest of the story once you’re done. (Hat tip to the folks at The New York Times, who tried this before with college attendance.)
There you have it. The murder rate has steadily dropped for the past 20 years. Overall crime has fallen too, but this graph highlights murders because they’re very reliably reported. Although last year does appear a bit worse—a preliminary FBI report suggests murders were up by 6.2 percent in the first half of 2015— the overarching trend points decidedly downward.
But as my colleague David Graham noted earlier this week, the perception of crime has rarely matched reality. In March 2001, 62 percent of Americans were very concerned about violence, according to Gallup. At that point, the United States was enjoying its lowest murder rate in more than 30 years.
The next few months saw a huge correction in public perception. In the year after the planes crashed into the World Trade Centers, the proportion of people worried about crime dropped 13 percentage points, down to 49 percent. For a time, Americans were far more likely to worry about terrorism than troubles at home. And over the next decade, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq appear to have pushed any lingering fears about domestic crime deep into the dark corners of the American id.
It’s likely that crime increased in 2015. Does that signal a trend? Probably not. As the Brennan Center for Justice wrote earlier this year:
Americans continue to experience low crime rates. The average person in a large urban area is safer walking down the street today than he or she would have been at almost any time in the past 30 years. That does not mean there is not variation across cities.
In some cities, murder is up. However, there is not yet sufficient evidence to conclude these levels will persist in the future or are part of a national trend.
Although headlines suggesting a coming crime wave make good copy, a look at the available data shows there is no evidence to support that claim.
All the same, those old fears have now staged a striking comeback. But not evenly so. Gallup now says 70 percent of people with a high-school degree or less are very worried about violence, a jump of 20 percentage points from 2015. That’s huge. But only 32 percent of people with college degrees share their concern, and that demographic saw just a 1-point uptick in anxiety over the past year. People of color have always been more concerned about crime, but this year, fear among whites shot up faster.
Trump’s most ardent supporters are white and working class, the very folks whose anxieties over crime have reached a fever pitch. They’re less likely to sympathize with the Black Lives Matter movement, viewing the loud protests it has provoked as more threatening than productive. They’re more likely to view immigrants as threats to their physical security. Cue Trump, who has built a campaign around the notion that America is slipping into decay, and now refers to violence in “inner cities” and promises to promote “law, order, and safety” over violence. With Trump insisting that America is on the precipice of chaos, his supporters may find confirmation in each new crime, without regard for longterm trends.
It has been a rough few weeks. I’ve seen more heartbreak this month than I can remember. But that’s the thing—my memory is terrible. Human beings recall bad things with frightning clarity. It’s easy to forget the big picture, which is this: America is safer than it has been in a generation. No matter how you drew the curve above, the real one slopes downward.
This article is part of our Next America: Criminal Justice project, which is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
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