No, Violent Crime is Not Increasing in the US

 NOTE (7/7/16): This post has been updated, based on the feedback of a few individuals. Thanks!

    Recently, there's been a lot of attention about the violent crime problem in the United States. Specifically, Donald Trump has been very fond of claiming that inner-city violent crime is wildly out of control. For instance, several of his most recent tweets have referenced the violent crime problem in Chicago, and the great crime threat posed by undocumented workers in the United States (a whole 'nother can of worms I'm not going to address here).

     Indeed, Chicago has gotten quite a bit of press regarding their homicide rate. Ever since the spike in violence around 2015, media attention has focused disproportionately on homicides in the Windy City. For instance, the Chicago Tribune has a site devoted to every single homicide victim reported in the city. This focus on inner-city violent crime after 2015 has left some wondering if we are on the precipice of a new violent crime wave. Does Donald Trump have a point here?

Violent Crime and Homicides in Chicago

     Let's take a look first at what's going on in Chicago. Amid this fear of a violent crime epidemic, Chicago has been ground zero. Despite steady decreases in homicides in most other cities, Chicago has marked an uptick in the past two years, along with a handful other other cities (such as Indianapolis, St. Louis, New Orleans, among others). Looking at data from 2010 to the present, the overall homicide trend seems to be increasing. August of 2016 marked the deadliest year in the city in over two decades with about 95 homicides. Indeed, it is hard to argue that 2016 was a fairly extraordinary year for homicides.

 
Monthly homicides in Chicago from 2001 to June 30th 2017. The dotted red line shows the smoothed trend , which suggests an overall decrease up until about the mid 2010s, where it beings to increase. August 2016 saw the most homicides in any month since 2010. 

Monthly homicides in Chicago from 2001 to June 30th 2017. The dotted red line shows the smoothed trend , which suggests an overall decrease up until about the mid 2010s, where it beings to increase. August 2016 saw the most homicides in any month since 2010. 

 

     So if the homicide rate is increasing so badly, how does 2017 look compared to previous years? Are we on track for another record-setting year? Looking at the month-to-date data, it looks like 2017 is indeed pretty high. June of last year saw about 79 homicides, while June of 2017 surpassed that number by about 4 homicides - hitting a June record of 83.

 
Monthly homicides by year. 2016, shown in blue, is by far the highest year for homicides in the city of Chicago. 2017, shown in orange, is following fairly close to 2016.

Monthly homicides by year. 2016, shown in blue, is by far the highest year for homicides in the city of Chicago. 2017, shown in orange, is following fairly close to 2016.

 

     So perhaps the Donald has a point. Homicides in 2016 were, by far, the highest in recent memory in Chicago. 2017, while not nearly as high as 2016, is still trending high and quite similar to the record setting previous year. Is he right that violence is out of control? Like a lot of what Donald Trump says, this is only partly true. The part that he is correct about is that homicides in Chicago have been much higher in 2016 and 2017 than in recent memory (that is, since 2001 at least). However, this is a very narrow and small part of the greater violent crime issue.

     One problem with the focus on the crime problem is the disproportionate focus on homicides. While they certainly represent one of the most heinous and destructive crimes, they make up a very, very tiny proportion of the overall violent crime problem. For instance, there were about 670 homicides in Chicago in 2016, but over 2,000 aggravated assaults, and 12,000 robberies. One thing you don't often see mentioned is that these crimes have actually been decreasing year-over-year for decades throughout the country. For instance, using data from the Uniform Crime Reports, we can see that violent crime in the United States has been decreasing pretty steadily from its peak in 1993 until 2014 (the last available year of data). Chicago, too, has seen fairly similar decreases as well. 2016 - despite being one of the worst years for homicides also had record low numbers of robberies. Similarly, 2016 saw aggravated assault numbers that were somewhere near the middle of the pack. Looking at the trends for 2017, it appears this year is following fairly similarly.

 
Violent crime rate per 100,000 for the United States. The shaded area represents the upper and lower limits per year, while the red points represent the yearly average violent crime rate. 1993 saw the highest violent crime rate since the UCR was administered. By 2014, the average nationwide violent crime rate had fallen to 1973 levels. 2015 levels were slightly elevated, relative to 2014.

Violent crime rate per 100,000 for the United States. The shaded area represents the upper and lower limits per year, while the red points represent the yearly average violent crime rate. 1993 saw the highest violent crime rate since the UCR was administered. By 2014, the average nationwide violent crime rate had fallen to 1973 levels. 2015 levels were slightly elevated, relative to 2014.

 

No, Violent Crime is Not Increasing in the US

     Violent crime has been dropping pretty steadily throughout the country. In 2015 and 2016, a handful of cities were responsible for a slight uptick in homicides. Politically, it is very easy to look at a single statistic in a single city and make wide-ranging claims. Practically, there are many problems which lead to high levels of violent crime. If we are serious about addressing crime issues in our country, we need to be aware of all types crime - not just inner city homicide. Similarly, we need to look at other sources of death - such as the increase in opiate drug overdoses or gun suicides (indeed - the mental health\gun nexus is a largely ignored area). 140 characters isn't enough room to make wide-ranging claims.

Chicago Robberies by Month (2001 - 2017)

Robberies (armed and unarmed) in Chicago by month. 2016 and 2017 are near the bottom, with numbers lower than most other years.

Robberies (armed and unarmed) in Chicago by month. 2016 and 2017 are near the bottom, with numbers lower than most other years.

Chicago Agg. Assaults by Month (2001 - 2017)

Aggravated Assaults in Chicago by month. Both 2016 and 2017 are somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Aggravated Assaults in Chicago by month. Both 2016 and 2017 are somewhere in the middle of the pack.