What Not to Read Into the FBI’s Latest Murder Data

    The FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report is severely limited. Although 85 percent of America’s 15,875 police agencies send their local crime data for inclusion, participation is completely voluntary and several major cities—including New York, Chicago and New Orleans—are unrepresented.

    Despite that, every time this report is released in late September, there is substantial fanfare. It is the closest thing that professional crime nerds have to an official holiday, as national reporters flock to them for a week before forgetting about them until next year.

    Politicians, especially those on the right, also join in on the feigned excitement as an opportunity to flex their toughness. This year, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), who was still the Governor of Florida when it became the third-most murderous US state in 2018, grabbed his pitchfork and blamed the “radical Left’s Defund The Police movement” for the increase in murders shown in the report.

    Ironically, since the UCR consistently lags behind a year, this year’s report is actually about 2020, when President Trump was still in office.

    Nonetheless, the data are scary, showing a 30 percent murder increase from 2019 to 2020. (Important caveats include that year-to-year comparisons are not reliably indicative of trends; and also that overall crime fell, as it has been doing for many years.)

    People are entitled to expect such numbers to be explained and interpreted by reasonable experts. Unfortunately, many figures whose reactions are often sought by the media are arguably neither reasonable nor experts.

    For its coverage on the UCR, the New York Times published Jeff Asher of AH Datalytics, a non-credentialed “crime expert” who was previously caught concealing his employment with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, a police agency that inspired yet another media expose on its racism just days ago.

    Not only are these arguments inflammatory and speculative, they serve the whims of those who hold power, such as the police.

    While being equivocal on some of the details, Asher simultaneously fed the Ferguson effect theory to the masses: the idea that police stop doing their jobs when criticized, which leads to more violence. Back in 2016, he went so far as to take two cherry-picked variables—shootings and drug arrests in Baltimore—then imply that shootings went up because drug arrests went down. He often uses year-to-date data in the same way many police departments do: to make crime trends look worse than they are. In 2021, he is lending credence to suggestions that people being angry about George Floyd’s murder by the police is a factor behind the murder spike.

    Not only are these arguments inflammatory and speculative, they serve the whims of those who hold power, such as the police. As the Drug Policy Alliance has explained, police by and large want to keep drugs illegal because larger numbers of arrests help justify the “increased hiring of officers, more overtime pay, more equipment, and more advanced technologies.” Bolstering the argument that drugs need to be kept illegal so that officers are more proactive and inadvertently, indirectly stop shootings is a convenient work-around to the growing unpopularity of the drug war.

    Asher’s takeaway is not that different from those of other members of the crime-obsessed, justice-ambivalent criminologist cadre. Professor Justin Nix at the University of Nebraska-Omaha also sought to reanimate the corpse of the Ferguson effect so he could pin the murder rate on someone—read: those whose direct experiences or attention to events make them view policing negatively, and the “small group [who] felt emboldened as a result of the legitimacy crisis.”

    For all the talk of legitimacy that such talking heads harp on, there is little acknowledgment of how little police officers are willing to work to earn any sense of legitimacy in harmed communities. Very little has been made of the abject failure of the Obama administration’s work on restoring legitimacy, for example. Under Obama, millions of dollars went to a program meant to teach police to treat members of marginalized Black and Brown communities with basic human respect; a comprehensive audit showed barely any progress. Before and after surveys showed that officers’ negative views about the communities they police are highly entrenched.

    John Roman, a senior fellow at the NORC think tank at the University of Chicago, offers a more intuitive explanation for the murder increase. In his analysis, it’s not that people are mad at the cops or that cops are afraid to do their jobs: It’s that boys and young men in distressed neighborhoods, often impacted by trauma and with access to guns, have been stuck at home without opportunities. Circumstances that practically invite a cycle of settling scores are not unknown to violence prevention professionals like David Kennedy, who invented the strategy of focused deterrence. It’s just that the pandemic has almost certainly heightened these circumstances.

    Yet even relatively erudite thinkers would rather talk about a culture war.

    Too little ever changes when it comes to the police. That is why the “defund” movement is here to stay.

    To blame protestors or people from impacted communities is cruel as well as wrong. Calls to defund the police come from frustration at a police reform-industrial complex that continuously fails to generate either safety or liberty.

    And despite limited evidence—so far—to support the efficacy of some alternative safety proposals like violence interrupters, at least the people behind such programs are trying something new.

    While the police as a whole are making no real effort to change a broken way of doing things, they have benefitted from false claims—proclaimed by the most performatively pro-police political figures—that there is a major police defunding happening in our cities, despite the opposite being true overall.

    Too little ever changes when it comes to the police. That is why the “defund” movement is here to stay, even if the murder rate goes up another 30 percent next year.



    Photograph by Tony Hisgett via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

    The Influence Foundation, which operates Filter, previously receieved a restricted grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to support a Drug War Journalism Diversity Fellowship.

    • Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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