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Violent Crime Down. Here’s Why More People Feel Victimized.
Important gaps exist between how the FBI measures serious offenses and what people experience
By Josh Zumbrun, WSJ
Dec. 1, 2023 5:30 am ET
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s rate of violent crime combines the most serious offenses: homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery.
Crime has been generating what look like contradictory headlines.
In October, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual report showed violent crime in 2022 fell to its relatively low, prepandemic level. Yet in November, Gallup reported that a record-high 63% of U.S. adults said the “crime situation in the U.S. is extremely or very serious.”
This seems to suggest that either the crime data is wrong or people are unrealistically negative. There is another possibility: More people are experiencing crime, but it isn’t captured in FBI measures.
“There has long been a mismatch between public perception and reality on crime,” said Ames Grawert, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, a liberal-leaning legal-policy institute. “But it’s understandable that people would be worried about crime today and we have to take them seriously.”
When you look at how the crime statistics come together, it shows that violent crime can fall and people can simultaneously experience more crime.
The FBI’s crime-statistics system originated in 1930. Its most reported figure, the rate of violent crime, combines the most serious offenses: homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery.
This rate is back to its prepandemic level, which itself came near the end of a multidecade decline. From 1991 until 2014 violent crime in the U.S., like much of the world, fell sharply, from 783 incidents per 100,000 people to 362. Grawert called it “one of the least remarked upon but most important social phenomena of our lifetimes.” In 2022, the rate stood at 381, down from a recent peak of 399 in 2020 and back to its 2019 figure, also 381.
But these figures come with qualifiers. The FBI has been changing to a more granular data-reporting system. The switch was supposed to be completed in 2021. But that year many police departments were still learning the new system, so the FBI used data from police departments covering only 52% of the country, and extrapolated the rest, making it difficult to know whether violent crime actually rose or fell compared with 2020. For 2022, the FBI has data from departments covering 94% of the country.
Another caveat is that the violent-crime rate is largely driven by aggravated assaults and robberies, which are far more numerous than homicides. Homicides are naturally a major concern, and the homicide rate abruptly soared in 2020 amid the pandemic—and in 2022 was still 43% higher than in 2014. Much of the decline since the 1990s has been reversed during the past three years.
Are crimes reported?
An even more important caveat is that violent crimes reported to the police almost certainly undercount actual crimes experienced by people, and trends in the two can diverge.
Separate from the FBI, which gets its data from the police, the Justice Department asks people whether they have been the victims of crime and whether they reported it to the police.
The September National Crime Victimization Survey showed only about 40% of violent crimes were reported to the police in 2022. The number of people who said they were a victim of violent crime rose 42% from 2021, but only 29% more reported crimes to the police.
This data has caveats, too. The survey, traditionally conducted in person, temporarily switched to phone interviews in 2020 and its data that year was at odds with other sources. (It showed no particular increase in crime.) That means 2021’s data isn’t easy to compare to the previous year, leaving the exact crime trend over the past three years unclear.
Other crimes matter, too
Most important, people worry about more than violent crime. In 2023, 28% of people told Gallup, as part of its annual survey on crime, that their household had been hit by a crime, up from 20% in 2020. Not all of those are violent—Gallup asks about seven crimes, including nonviolent ones—but they nonetheless matter to the affected household.
“A lot of this is pretty minor crimes like vandalism,” said Jeffrey Jones, a senior editor at Gallup. “But if you’ve been victimized you’re more likely to see crime increasing.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, 75% of households who report being victimized by a crime say they believe crime is rising in their area, versus 47% of those who weren’t victimized, Jones noted.
Several high-profile types of crime also seem to be on the rise. Carjackings—a subtype of robbery—climbed in 2022, according to the FBI.
Retail theft, which isn’t included in violent-crime statistics, is also going up, driven especially by New York City and Los Angeles; in many other cities such thefts are falling. An analysis from John Jay College of Criminal Justice finds retail thefts at major commercial retailers such as drug and department stores in New York City soared from 31,000 in 2014 to 54,000 in 2022. Some people say only corporations are victimized by this sort of crime, but in its aftermath, some customers will notice that they have to ask an employee to unlock the detergent shelf. These people might correctly conclude crime is going up even if they aren’t personally a victim of it.
It’s certainly good news that violent crime, with the notable exception of homicide, is down. But given the rise in other types of crime, it isn’t surprising households are concerned.
Write to Josh Zumbrun at email@example.com