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What is dangerous is the lack of data on crime in the United States

Crime is on the political agenda in a big way this year, with Republicans focusing on it as their favorite topic now that gas prices are moderating.

Which naturally raises the question: is crime on the rise? To which the shocking answer is – nobody knows. Not because anything unusual is going on, but simply because the usual state of American crime and police information is incredibly poor.

Compare this state of affairs with the amount of data available on the US economy. There are monthly updates on job creation, the unemployment rate and several inflation indices. Commodity prices are published daily. Gross National Product reports are released quarterly, with timely revisions as more data arrives. Decision-makers benefit from an in-depth debate, enriched by comments from academics and other observers.

But when it comes to crime, the United States is, to a shocking extent, blind. As a July report from the Brennan Center for Justice noted: “More than six months into 2022, national crime data for 2021 remains unavailable.”

There is data. In the largest US cities, the murder rate rose in 2021. And since national crime trends almost invariably follow the trends seen in this sample of 22 cities, analysts are confident that there has been a national increase murders last year. It is also very likely that there has been an overall increase in shootings and violent assaults. But beyond that, it’s hard to say.

It is possible to draw more precise conclusions by going back to 2020, the most recent year for which there are official data. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program clearly indicates that there was a very large increase in murders in 2020. It also shows that the increase occurred across the board – murders increased by 20% in counties rural and 20% in the suburbs, so whatever went wrong can’t be pinned entirely on “Democratic mayors” or big-city politics.

That said, the increase in inner cities of 250,000 or more people was even larger – around 34%. With concrete numbers rather than statistical imputations in hand, it is both clear that there was a problem specific to the city – presumably related to the fallout from the murder of George Floyd and the national wave of protests that followed – and that whatever that problem is, that’s not the case. explain the majority of the increase in murders.

For 2021, the picture becomes much blurrier. Murders increased in major cities, but at a much lower rate than the previous year. And in smaller communities? Who knows.

For 2022, the researchers tell me the best source is data gathered by a private company called AH Datalytics. His team basically looks at 92 major cities that publicly report murder data in a timely manner and put the numbers into a spreadsheet. It ends up getting pretty messy, because as of this writing, some cities (Kansas City, Wash.) have updated information since Sept. 14, while others (San Antonio, Shreveport, La.) don’t. are updated only until March 31. And of course, this rough calculation does not allow to compare crime trends in central cities with suburbs and rural areas.

Still, for the record, murders are happening at a rate about 3.5% lower this year than last year.

Lack of information is not just a problem for rigor-conscious decision makers. It also leaves the political arena open to manipulation by demagogues. Since no one really knows in real time what is going on, anecdotes can simply replace made-up fears. Since the very real killing spree of 2020 has now led people to believe “crime is out of control” narratives, any particular example of violence can be used to support this story.

What all of these anecdotes fail to recognize is that the United States is a gigantic country, so even in a very low crime year like 2014, multiple people were murdered every day. A person could have posted daily updates painting a terrifying portrait of life in the United States, even at a time when violence was at its lowest.

In the same way, when murder really spiked in 2020, it was easy for progressives to stay in ideologically convenient denial for too long, because it was genuinely impossible to prove it was happening much later. People who have dismissed the anecdotal evidence of increasing crime are, in this case, wrong. But Republicans fueling fears of rising crime also appear to be wrong. And the lack of information about geographic patterns in murder trends means no one has much ability to assess what social or political factors may be at play.

What makes all of this particularly infuriating is that gathering this information in a timely manner shouldn’t be that difficult. Police departments know how many murders are committed in their jurisdiction. This information is stored on computers. It does not need to be delivered to the Department of Justice by carrier pigeon.

The DOJ should receive money to create a system that can be easily updated by law enforcement agencies, and timely filing of this information should be a condition of receiving federal policing grants. . A small team from the Bureau of Justice Statistics could be tasked with phoning departments that haven’t done so and “reminding” them to update the numbers. And then the data could be released regularly in machine-readable form – in the same way as employment, inflation and other major economic statistics.

Knowing what’s really going on wouldn’t in itself solve America’s crime problems. But successful efforts to reduce violence, like the one in New York in the 1990s, were driven by a commitment to rigorous measurement.

Serious federal investment in crime data collection is no panacea, and it’s not exactly a winning political slogan. But it would be a huge boost for all sorts of crime-fighting efforts.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Don’t blame progressive prosecutors for rising crime: Jennifer Doleac

• New York crime wave shows signs of breaking: Justin Fox

• Drugs fuel urban crime. Will the Democrats pay attention? : Jim Hinch

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Co-founder and former columnist of Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans”.

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