Depending on your politics, the FBI’s new stats can look scary or meaningless. Here’s a more honest reading.
On Monday, the FBI released crime statistics for 2015. The results were not unexpected but newsworthy nonetheless: In the context of a presidential campaign in which one candidate has painted a picture of a nation being torn apart by violence and positioned himself as a champion of “law and order,” any new data on crime rates—what’s actually going on, underneath all the rhetoric—is valuable.
The FBI’s numbers do not prove Donald Trump right. But they also resist easy interpretation, inspiring a rather bitter tug of war between people with differing opinions about how the data should be understood. In covering the new stats, some news outlets led with the FBI’s finding that the total number of murders in America went up 10.8 percent last year—from a little over 14,000 killings in 2014 to just under 15,700 in 2015. Others sought to put that change in historical context, noting that the murder spike had followed a long, steep decline in violent crime that began more than 20 years ago.
Where different people placed the emphasis depended on their beliefs about crime and punishment. Those who think scary year-on-year crime statistics drum up misplaced support for overly aggressive law enforcement policies played down the murder surge. (In the Huffington Post, Ryan Reilly published a pointed story under the headline “2015 Was One of the Safest Years in The Past 2 Decades, According to FBI Crime Stats” and described the national homicide rate as having grown only “slightly.”) Those who see folly in focusing on good news when thousands of people are being killed highlighted all the ways in which crime has gotten worse. (Peter Moskos, a sociologist and ex-cop from Baltimore, wrote on his blog that while “the accepted liberal reaction to this increase seems to be ‘it’s not a big deal’ and ‘Don’t freak out’ … What matters, or at least should matter, is that more American are being murdered.”)