30 December 2015

And Yet More Bullsh%$ in the Criminal Justice Arena

It appears that, notwithstanding claims of the "Ferguson Effect", and the reality of police slowdowns in places like New York City, there is no statistically significant increase in the murder rate:
As I've mentioned in a number of posts over the years, I believe the Late 20th Century Crime Wave was one of the two or three most politically and culturally consequential events in the US in the second half of the twenty century. It is hard to overstate the impact of this very real rise in the rates of all violent crimes but most especially murder. And one of the greatest mysteries about it is that that for all the studies, theories and attempts to control it, we simply do not have a clear understanding of why it began in the early 1960s or why it ended over the course of the 1990s. I've noted that, somewhat against my better judgment, I've become increasingly open to the seemingly crude and monocausal theory that lead poisoning played a key role in driving the crime wave. Still, I think we still basically do not know. Yet, over the last year or so we've seen a rising chorus of commentary and political posturing which claims that increasing civil rights activism (i.e. Black Lives Matter or the so-called "Ferguson Effect") and more permissive or cowed policing is at least starting to push crime rates back up toward where they were in the bad old days.


When I started looking at this I was curious to find out myself because I have heard a lot of reports of the murder rate specifically going up. That's obviously bad news in itself. But it also confounds my assumption that the rise and fall of the murder rate over the second half of the 20th century had far less to do with policy interventions of any sort than we'd like to think. So if a mild ramping back of aggressive policing can shift the scales in the other direction, that changes the whole story significantly. If crime is on the way back up, I'd still be suspicious that it is tied to differences in policing. My assumption would be that the underlying trends, about which we understand little, have shifted. In any case, what I found was quite different from what I've been hearing and reading.

From the beginning of 2015 there has been what can only be called a relentless desire to find a spike in the crime and murder rates. So for instance, back on March 3rd, The New York Daily News ran "Murders up 20% in 2015 in year-to-year comparison, NYPD says". Needless to say, when you're only going on 2 out of 12 months the statistics can be very volatile. Then there was a less hyperbolic story that ran in The New York Times, "Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities, which noted a 9% increase in the murder rate for New York City. Then on September 21st, USA Today published 'Bloody weekend in NYC puts rising murder rate in spotlight' which noted that "A bloody weekend in New York that saw eight shooting deaths could signal that out-of-control gun violence may return to the city" and then went on to say ...
The number of homicides is up slightly over last year, and if the trend continues New York City may see its first uptick in the homicide rate after 25 years of decline.
Now, this last claim is worth zeroing in on. I've gone back and recompiled the number of homicides in New York City going back to the peak year of 1990. And whatever gloss, interpretation or prediction about the future one may make from these numbers, this point about a "first uptick" is simply false. Since 1990, even as the murder rate has gone down consistently, the number has actually gone up on a year over year basis 6 times: 1999 (6%), 2000 (.3%), 2003 (1.7%), 2006 (10.6%), 2008 (5.9%) and 2010 (13.8%).

As late as one week ago, Newsday predicted that the city murder rate would end up at just over 5%, with 350 homicides for the year. But as of Christmas Day, the number stood at 339 homicides for 2015, which would amount to an increase over 1.8% over 2014.


The Times itself touched on this point yesterday with a very different article "Anxiety Aside, New York Sees Drop in Crime," which notes that while New Yorkers seemed to feel less safe, over all crime actually fell by 2%. 


The simple reality is that we won't really know the story until the 2015 FBI statistics are released. And even then we will only know about a single year, which means very little. For the moment, what seems clear is that there is a public mood of panic, menace and fear. And at least in New York City, that seems to be the case even though it's totally belied by the actual crime statistics.
What a surprise.  The reports of skyrocketing crime appear to be at best statistical noise, and more likely a juxtaposition of bias in reporting, and efforts by law enforcement to push the meme.


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