Trump's Illusory Answers to Imaginary Crime Problems

The president’s latest executive orders achieve little while trying to answer a crime wave that data doesn’t support.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Jeff Sessions issued a de facto mission statement within moments of being sworn in attorney general on Thursday.

“We have a crime problem,” the former Alabama senator said. “I wish the rise we were seeing in crime in American today were a blip. My best judgment, having been involved in criminal law enforcement for many years, is that this is a dangerous permanent trend.”

Years of experience or not, Sessions’s statement is belied by the facts at worst, or wildly premature at best. The violent crime rate did tick up in 2015, the latest available year, coming in slightly higher than 2014. But it remains more than 16 percent below where it was in 2006, and far below its peak in the early 1990s.

Despite the fact that there’s reliable data, gathered by the federal government, Trump and members of his administration keep misleading with their statements on crime. During the presidential campaign, Trump claimed repeatedly that the streets of the nation were in chaos. On Tuesday, while meeting with members of the National Sheriffs’ Association, the president falsely claimed, as he has repeatedly before, that the national murder rate is at its highest point in 47 years. Murder rates increased in 2015, too, but they also remain well below their recent peaks.

What is true is that violent-crime rates in some places are extremely high. Chicago is dealing with a consistently high rate of gun violence. Baltimore is averaging a murder a day in 2017, after a bloody 2016. Yet New York City saw a historic low murder rate in January. The high rate of violence in some places is cause for concern, but it’s simply not the case that it equates to a national crime wave like the one that began in the 1970s and crested in the early 1990s.

These willful misstatements of fact are not harmful simply because they’re false. Overheated rhetoric about rising crime tends to inflame the populace, and indeed, concern about violent crime has increased far faster than the rate of violent crime. Gallup finds that there is little direct relation between the rate of violent crime and citizens’ concern about it. That in turn creates a demand for action to meet the illusory skyrocketing threat of crime—demand that can produce policies that distract from bigger problems at best and are counterproductive at worst.

Enter the three executive orders that Trump signed Thursday, at the same event where Sessions was sworn in. According to the new White House’s custom, the text of the orders was not released until hours after they’d been signed.

One simply creates a task force to study crime-reduction and public safety, though it offers some sense of what to expect among enforcement priorities of the Sessions-led Justice Department, especially “illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and violent crime.”

A second emphasizes the importance of enforcing the law on transnational cartels. The order reflects Trump’s view, expounded frequently on the campaign trail, that drug cartels are a major source of crime in the United States, thus necessitating stronger controls on the border. The order says the executive branch will “pursue and support additional efforts to prevent the operational success of transnational criminal organizations and subsidiary organizations within and beyond the United States, to include prosecution of ancillary criminal offenses, such as immigration fraud and visa fraud.” Examining immigration fraud and visa fraud could be a central element of creating the lists of crimes by illegal immigrants that Trump mandated in an earlier executive order.

The third order focuses on violence against police officers. The order says the Justice Department will develop strategies to improve protection of officers, including proposing legislation creating new federal crimes for perpetrating violence against officers. This order also offers little that is concrete, but Congress could take up legislation that emerges from its recommendations. (Former Attorney General Eric Holder tartly noted on Twitter that his Justice Department had pursued some protections for officers years ago.)

During the presidential campaign, Trump promised to make killing a police officer a death-penalty offense, although that would probably not be legally feasible. Protecting police against violence is politically popular, but it’s not clear that it addresses a worsening problem. In 2016, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 135 officers were killed in the line of duty—the highest number since 2011, but still lower than any year between 1964 and 2008. That is surely too high, but it is not clear what this latest initiative will do to reduce it.

It’s also not the only problem facing law enforcement, but the Trump administration has not been as eager to address others. There are multiple examples of egregious, systemic abuse of civilians being perpetrated by police departments in cities like Baltimore, Ferguson, Cleveland, and Chicago. During his confirmation hearings, Sessions expressed misgivings about the Justice Department’s investigations into those departments, arguing that a few bad apples were to blame. He said that federal lawsuits “undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness.”

One thing that’s disconcerting about the overall downward trend in crime over the last two decades (sorry, Attorney General Sessions) is how little is understood about—there’s no clear explanation for the dive. Given how mysterious crime rates are, it’s hard enough to make good crime-fighting policy. Making it based on false and misleading statements about that data is nigh unto impossible.