No, Crime Hasn’t Actually Increased

A rally held for the 19 children and two teachers who were murdered during the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, during a March For Our Lives demonstration, on Aug. 27, 2022 in Austin, Texas. Activists marched with parents from Uvalde and Santa Fe at the Texas Capitol, where they demanded Gov. Greg Abbott call a special session to raise the minimum age to 21 for the purchase of assault weapons. (Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

From Louisiana and Wisconsin to Pennsylvania and New York, Republicans are trying to scare midterm voters to the polls like their lives depend on it, by making crime a wedge issue. The GOP has spent an estimated $21 million on ads related to crime and punishment in the last month. (Democrats spent $17 million.)

Politicians have been running on platforms of “tough on crime” for years—though recently, the message has pivoted slightly to an emphasis on “safety.” But now Republicans are arguing (in bad-faith) that crime is on the rise, relying on data released last month by the FBI that experts warned from the start would cause problems upon its release.

This year’s crime statistics look different than in previous years, and show an increase in murder nationally in 2021 of roughly 4 percent. To those of us not up-to-date on the intricacies of the FBI’s methodology (who among us?) it looks like crime has increased.

But $38 million worth of campaign ads don’t explain that the FBI began using a new system to track and document crime across America, and this new system is inflating the numbers. 

Since 1930, the FBI has been using the Summary Reporting System (SRS), which followed a hierarchy rule. If multiple crimes were reported in a single incident, only the most severe crime was counted in their database.

As of 2021, the FBI is now using the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS) which counts each crime separately.

For the past 90 years, a carjacking where the victim was beaten and had their car stolen counted as a singular crime. Now, it counts as two crimes: assault, and car theft. NIBRS also tracks the demographic and situational data of the incident, such as the race and gender of all persons involved, their relationship with each other, and the date of the crime.

Another reason to be wary of the FBI crime statistics is their method of data retrieval. Police agencies are not required to report their crime data to the FBI; it is entirely voluntary. In fact, more than one-third of police departments didn’t submit their data in 2020—including NYPD and LAPD—two of the biggest police agencies in the country.

When police agencies don’t submit their crime data for the year, the FBI uses artificial intelligence to fill in their missing information. The FBI is aware of the statistical error included in these data points. They include this information, in the form of confidence intervals, in the yearly report. However, by the time most Americans are exposed to the data, it’s already been filtered through partisan campaign ads and any disclaimer on error is less impactful. And experts predict even more police agencies will abstain from submitting their 2021 data because this requires switching all their information from the old reporting system (SRS) to the new NIBRS.

The FBI specializes in eight major crimes: murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson. The data the FBI receives from local police departments excludes wage theft, workspace safety, building code violations and environmental protection violations (and, of course, the 68 percent of sexual assaults that are never reported)—the crimes that affect most Americans every day. Why, then, do we still use the FBI’s crime data as a metric for our nation’s sense of safety?

When most Americans think about “safety,” turns out they aren’t talking about cops or criminals. When asked which policy solutions would benefit their overall safety and stability, Americans in 11 battleground states cited people having jobs; quick first responders, including mental health responders; well-lit streets and parking lots; and reliable, affordable housing.

According to a September memo from Vera Action, a nonprofit fighting to end mass incarceration, 74 percent of Americans agree that the safest places in the country don’t have more police, jails, prisons or harsher sentences. The safest communities are the ones with access to jobs, good schools, housing and healthcare.

As the 2022 midterm elections approach, savvy voters will resist the fear-mongering campaigns of politicians. Americans don’t want “tough on crime” candidates—unless those candidates are talking about the safety that comes with public infrastructure, community-based solutions and livable wages.

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Olivia Rynberg-Going is an editorial intern for Ms. and a current senior at Smith College double majoring in Government and the Study of Women and Gender. She loves writing about reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ family laws, prison reform (abolition), southern states and anything to do with elections and campaigning.