President Trump Continues to Make False Claims about the U.S. Murder Rate
At a meeting with leaders of the National Sheriffs’ Association on Tuesday, Donald Trump made a false claim about the U.S. murder rate, a statement that he has repeated several times in the past. The comment came as he was touting the importance of meeting with local sheriffs, something he emphasized given that, as he claims, the murder rate is the highest that is has been in 47 years. But when you look at official FBI data, almost the opposite is true.
Here’s the president’s full statement according to a White House readout of his remarks:
And yet the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years, right? Did you know that? Forty-seven years. I used to use that — I’d say that in a speech and everybody was surprised, because the press doesn’t tell it like it is. It wasn’t to their advantage to say that. But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, from 45 to 47 years.
So, is President Trump right? Is the murder rate at a multi-decade high? If you look at it literally, his claim is false on its face; the murder rate actually remains near historic lows. But if you dig deep enough, there is something unusual about the recent change in the murder rate.
First, let’s take a look at his actual claim. In 2015, the most recent year with available data from the FBI, the U.S. murder rate was 4.9 murders per 100,000 people. The highest murder rate in the last 47 years–the date range selected by President Trump–was in 1980, which had a murder rate of 10.2 per 100,000 people. Put simply, the highest murder rate in the past several decades was more than twice as high as the murder rate in 2015. While it is possible that the murder rate increased slightly in 2016, there is absolutely no evidence that went up by more than 100 percent, which it would need to do for the president’s claim to be true.
Here’s a graph showing how the murder rate has changed over the past 50 years:
With a few exceptions–notably 2015–the murder rate has trended downward for more than two decades. Despite a recent increase in murders, the murder rate remains near the lowest point that it has been in half a century.
Now let’s also take a brief moment to look at where this data comes from, and why it’s the best available to tell us about U.S. crime rates. Each year, the FBI publishes its annual Crime in the United States report, which is created through an extensive collaborative effort between the FBI and nearly every law enforcement agency in the United States. The report includes data from more than 18,000 agencies that cover nearly 98 percent of the U.S. population. This report is the most authoritative collection of crime data in the United States, detailing every criminal offense known to law enforcement.
While the actual claim that Donald Trump made on Tuesday–and also something that he frequently alluded to during the course of his campaign–is false, there is something noteworthy about the 2015 data. Namely, there was a significant increase that year compared to the previous year, a jump of about 11 percent. This single year increase is by far the largest in recent years. But despite that, 4.9 murders per 100,000 people is still lower than the 2009 rate.
Now that doesn’t mean that the recent jump in the murder rate is insignificant, but when it comes to addressing the problem, it may be more helpful to look at what is happening in individual cities. In fact, the number of murders did not increase in every city in 2015, there was significant variation between them. Law Street has an interactive map showing exactly how murder rates changed in America’s largest cities.
While Trump’s claim about the murder rate in the United States is incorrect, if you dig deep enough there is something noteworthy about recent crime statistics. This would be particularly true if the recent increase becomes a trend. It is important to note that the issue with Donald Trump’s claim isn’t just a matter of semantics–what he said is quite different from what actually appears to be important from the most recent crime statistics. Making claims that wildly overstate the number of murders in the United States is not conducive to addressing something that might be a very serious problem if it becomes a persistent trend.