Trump Doesn’t Know Why Crime Rises or Falls. Neither Does Biden. Or Any Other Politician.

Trump Doesn’t Know Why Crime Rises or Falls. Neither Does Biden. Or Any Other Politician.

The billboards started popping up around Minneapolis in June. “Uptown reels after gunfire, bloodshed.” “Multiple shootings in metro area overnight.” Referencing quotes from local newspapers and TV stations, the signs were part of an ad campaign aimed at turning concerns over a spike in gun violence into a pro-police political movement.

The city of Minneapolis had a long, exhausting spring and summer. COVID-19 lockdowns starting in March were followed by the release of a graphic video showing a police officer killing George Floyd, sparking massive protests against police brutality — some of which turned violent and made news around the world. Then came the heat wave. And a withered job market that disproportionately affected Black residents. In August, another, smaller bout of unrest broke out after a murder suspect shot himself and community members initially believed that he’d been killed by police.

Through it all, crime ticked upward. By September 1, the city’s violent crime rate was 16.8% higher than the previous five-year average.

The rise in crime in Minneapolis has been mirrored across the nation, with nearly every major city seeing an increase in murder compared with recent years. It’s enough of a trend that op-eds have begun to refer to a “Minneapolis effect,” a nationwide crime spike driven, ostensibly, by civil unrest in one city. President Trump has blamed the increase in crime on Democratic mayors and positioned a return to law and order as a major platform of his reelection campaign. Stop criticizing police and crack down on crime, the argument goes, and the problem will be solved.

It’s a neat explanation, but here’s the catch: We don’t actually know why crime went up this year. To be fair, we don’t truly know why crime goes up … well, ever. Nor do we know how to make it go down in the long term. Despite — or perhaps because of — half a century of modern criminology data keeping and analysis, all researchers have to go on are correlations — and none of them clearly explain all the times crime has gone up.

But politicians continue to claim they know how to bring down crime, even though no single political policy can reduce crime or stop it from rising in the first place. When political figures push solutions to crime, they’re effectively trying to build a platform on the deck of a ghost ship — and their proposals and prevarications are often about something other than crime itself.

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It all started with Goldwater

On September 10, 1964, Barry Goldwater flew a chartered jet to Minneapolis to warn the people of the city about crime in the streets. The speech was part of the senator’s presidential campaign, and crime was a major feature of his platform. Crime wasn’t just a safety problem for America, Goldwater told voters; it was part of an identity problem. “[N]othing prepares the way for tyranny more than the failure of public officials to keep the streets safe from bullies and marauders,” he said in his speech accepting the Republican nomination. America was in danger. Americans, personally, were in danger, and the federal government needed to do something about it.

This campaign marked the first time crime became a national issue in American society, said Katherine Beckett, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington. Sure, Americans had thought about crime on a national scale before — during the Prohibition era, the federal government created an entire agency to enforce a federal law banning alcohol sales. But Goldwater was the first national politician to turn local crime into a national issue solvable by the executive branch.

Crime was trending upward in 1964. In 1960, the violent crime rate — murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — had been about 161 offenses per 100,000 people. By the year of the presidential election, it was up to about 191, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, a collection of data from thousands of local law enforcement agencies used to estimate national averages.

The fact that crime was rising in the mid-1960s did not come as a huge surprise to criminologists, said Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Even today, experts seem to treat this particular increase in crime as almost boring. That’s because it correlated strongly with demographic shifts.

The perpetration of crime isn’t evenly distributed across our lifespans. Instead, it’s a curve, peaking in our late teens and early 20s. Why that happens so reliably is a question that could fill a whole other article, but suffice it to say, a population that is disproportionately young is one of the very few variables that can consistently predict a rise in crime. In other words, Goldwater should have blamed the Baby Boomers.

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The simple explanations aren’t the right ones

But there’s never just one thing that causes crime to go up or down. The national crime rise of the mid-1960s is probably the most straightforward, everybody-agrees situation we have on record, but even there, a swell of young people wasn’t the only thing going on that could have led to an increase in crime.

“What do you need for a crime to happen?” asked Gary LaFree, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland. “Someone willing to do it. Things like legitimacy really play into that.” To LaFree, it matters that during the mid-to-late 1960s many Americans were questioning and challenging the legitimacy of police and government. “In the ’60s, respect for police was so low,” he said. “It wasn’t uncommon in Baltimore for a body to show up at 2 a.m. with no witnesses and no one willing to work with the system.”

This and other, confounding factors wipe away the possibility of demographic determinism as a neat, tidy explanation for crime. And that’s even before you get to the far steeper crime increase of the mid-1980s (which experts told us no one saw coming) or the crime decline of the mid-1990s (ditto). Neither cleanly fits with the Youth Cause Crime theory of the 1960s.

This is the main problem with all theories of what causes a crime wave: Everything is based on correlation. And — as we’re contractually obligated to remind you — finding a correlation ain’t the same thing as identifying a cause.

“There’s no way to conduct a randomized controlled experiment on changes in aggregate-level crime rates, and even if we could, we shouldn’t,” Rosenfeld said.

Instead, researchers are left to look for other shifts in society that match with the timing of the shifts in crime. That might be demographic changes. Or economic ones. It could be social distress and the delegitimization of police. It could be the introduction of a new drug, like crack cocaine in the ’80s. It could be environmental contaminants, like leaded gasoline. It could be a political change, like the legalization of abortion. Too many guns, not enough guns. They all can sound pretty damn convincing on their own. But dig too hard at any one correlation and its explanatory power falls apart. At least as a single, predictable cause.

One way to really poke at crime-cause theories is by comparing the correlations in the U.S. with those in similar nations, such as Canada. That’s what Franklin Zimring, a professor of criminology at Berkeley Law, did in the mid-2000s. He was looking at the massive decline in crime that began in the U.S. around 1994 and found that Canada had a large increase in crime about the same time, and a large decrease that also closely tracked the timing in the U.S. Between 1990 and 2000, crime fell by 35 percent in the U.S. and 33 percent in Canada. But many of the things that experts have proposed as causes of crime decline in the U.S. — the falling popularity of crack, a booming economy in the ’90s, higher abortion rates in the 70s and 80s, increased imprisonment rates, more police on the street — didn’t necessarily happen in Canada. Canada’s unemployment rate, for example, peaked much higher in the early 1990s and never recovered to the extent that it did in the U.S. Why would two countries that share a border and many cultural characteristics have a decline in crime but no obvious shared correlational causes?

The mystery eventually led Zimring to suspect that crime is cyclical. It’s going to go up, and it’s going to go down. And eventually it will go up again. When we told him we didn’t understand how that explained anything, he was cheerfully blunt. “Neither do I! When you see that cyclicality, what I’m telling you is to be puzzled,” he said.

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How politicians fill the void

All of this leaves a vacuum that politicians are more than happy to fill. More often than not during a crime wave, they want to deter crime by imposing stricter punishments. But talk to social scientists and they’ll probably tell you that because we don’t know what the primary driver of crime is, we should be expansive in our solutions. That includes thinking about nonpunitive measures that appear to help reduce crime — like education, health care access or after-school programs — in addition to more standard responses like putting more police on the streets.

It’s not that we have no idea what helped drive the decline in violence, after all. Research by Patrick Sharkey, a sociology professor at Princeton University, has indicated that a huge expansion of nonprofits and neighborhood groups contributed to the crime decline in the 1990s. But the expansion of police forces and mass incarceration also seem to have had an impact, and even changes like the growth of surveillance technology and cellphone ownership appear to have helped drive down property crime like car thefts. The trouble for researchers trying to pick apart what was the biggest driver is that none of those effects happened independently of one another.

“The efforts of nonprofits to take back parks and playgrounds would probably have been less effective if the police hadn’t been cracking down at the same time,” Sharkey said. “But similarly, it wasn’t just that the police came in and kicked ass and cleared the streets of troublemakers. It was also that residents were out in public spaces demanding that those communities would no longer be places where kids were not allowed to go outside at night, or not allowed to go to a park.” Trying to untangle which of those factors was responsible for more of the decline, he said, is a “misleading exercise.”

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In other words, there are multiple control levers policymakers can try pulling. Research even shows that people who live in high-crime neighborhoods want to see all the levers pulled at once, in addition to police reform.

But politicians tend to gravitate toward law-and-order solutions — a trend that dates back to the first push to make crime a national issue.

Think back to that Goldwater speech in Minneapolis in 1964. His rhetoric didn’t leave space for a mixture of increased law enforcement and nonpunitive measures. That’s because he saw things like government-funded social-welfare programs as the cause of crime. “If it is entirely proper for government to take from some to give to others, then won’t some be led to believe that they can rightfully take from anyone who has more than they?” Goldwater said.

His law-and-order speeches freely bounced between people committing illegal acts of violence, civil rights activists participating in lawful protest and people participating in riots linked to racial injustice. At the time, it was enough for the executive secretary of the NAACP to warn that a Goldwater win would likely lead to the creation of a police state.

And even though Goldwater lost, that punishment-first attitude came to define our national strategy — in part because Richard Nixon picked it up and used it, successfully, in his 1968 presidential campaign. Politicians on both sides of the aisle ran with that baton for the next few decades. Joe Biden, for example, was deeply involved in tough-on-crime legislation throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, working with Sen. Strom Thurmond on a series of bills that helped create America’s system of minimum sentences and mass incarceration. It’s a record Biden apologizes for now, but at the time, he seemed confident in the merits of punitive measures, and confident it was what his constituents wanted.

This, too, tracks with research. Researchers have found that as crime rose in the late 20th century, so did Americans’ support for punitive measures. Peter K. Enns, a political scientist at Cornell University who studies public opinion, analyzed Americans’ attitudes toward crime and punishment from the 1960s through the 1990s and found that the public grew significantly more enthusiastic about harsher disciplinary responses to crime on a variety of metrics, including the death penalty.

Part of that was in response to genuine anxiety about crime. But those fears were amplified by the fact that crime became a fixture of media coverage during this period and a common refrain from politicians. Michael Fortner, a political science professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center, told us that the rising crime rates created the backdrop for politicians to focus on crime. The crime wave, he said, “allow[ed] political elites to develop narratives and programs and use them strategically,” so even if people weren’t personally affected by crime, their fear could be “mobilized for political purposes.”

Over this period, politicians were focused primarily on punitive solutions. There were some grassroots efforts to push for more comprehensive reform, according to Lisa Miller, a political science professor at Rutgers University who studies the politics of crime. But it was harder for those complicated responses to gain traction, in part because responses to crime tend to be handled at the local level. (This is, to some extent, why nationalized police reform remains a near political impossibility — it’s just difficult for the federal government to force the country’s 18,000 police departments to play by the same rules.) Meanwhile, Miller said, “it’s not that hard to push money down from the federal government to build new prisons and hire more police” — which is exactly what happened.

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And the politics of crime — something that’s never really been free of racial dimensions — became hopelessly entangled with the backlash to the civil rights movement, which was happening just as the first crime wave was taking off. According to Beckett, both Goldwater and Nixon conflated protest and crime in their presidential campaigns. “I don’t believe their law-and-order rhetoric was rooted in any careful observation of the data,” she said. “With a sleight of hand they combined [protest and crime] and equated all protests and riots with crime and violence.” Over the following decades, crime became a code word for much more than homicide or property crime — politicians used it to harness white voters’ racial fears and resentments. “It was an effective way of tapping into and amplifying racial tensions in a way that affords [a politician] protection if someone calls you out for being racist,” Beckett said. And it still is. Research shows that, regardless of actual crime levels, Americans report feeling less safe in their neighborhoods if more young black men also live there.

All of this helps explain why law and order is resurfacing as one of the major themes of the 2020 campaign. A summer of simultaneously spiking crime rates and nationwide protests against racialized police brutality makes for a brew that’s similar to what we saw in the late 1960s, when Nixon successfully capitalized on rising racial resentment, protests and riots across the country, and an actual crime wave in his presidential campaign. Then — as now — Nixon, Goldwater, and other politicians didn’t really know why crime was rising, or whether the trend would continue. They also didn’t know what would bring the crime rate down. But that didn’t stop them from turning the nascent trend to their political advantage — something that could have long-term consequences.

If the crime spike of this summer turns into a wave, we’ll have to grapple with the fact that although the punitive responses of the 1980s and 1990s are now largely regarded as a mistake, they probably did something to reduce crime. Adaner Usmani, a sociologist at Harvard University who studies crime and punishment, said that it’s too easy to forget that a policy can be at least partially effective and also the wrong choice to make. “I’m in agreement with many people that [criminal justice] policy choices over the last 30 years have been disastrous. But there’s a lot of good evidence that they’ve had the effect that, narrowly speaking, politicians and the public hoped they would have,” he said.

That’s not a politically easy answer — that our past response to crime may have worked, but at a cost too great to repeat. That’s the trouble with responses to crime, though, Sharkey said. There’s no incentive for politicians, thinking about their next reelection cycle, to prioritize the long-term investments in communities that could keep crime rates down. Instead, there are potentially great political rewards for using crime as a dog whistle for other things, like mobilizing racial resentment.

The irony is that this political pattern may actually worsen crime itself, insofar as it makes certain communities less likely to trust politicians and political institutions, and resources aren’t directed to the parts of communities that can actually prevent crime from rising. Remember LaFree’s theories about how the loss of institutional legitimacy can lead to crime — if people in a community don’t trust the police to treat them fairly, they’re also unlikely to report crimes or work with police in ways that could prevent crime.

The stories politicians tell us about why crime matters, how much it matters and what to do about it have not done a great job of matching up with reality, Miller said. The consequence is that our view of potential solutions to crime gets narrower — punishment starts to seem like the silver bullet, but anyone with an eye on the data knows it is not.

And the more that picture of the world narrows, the more people of color get crushed by it. From Goldwater to Minneapolis (and long before) law and order has affected those groups differently than it has white Americans. After half a century of dog whistles, it’s hard to disentangle tough-on-crime rhetoric from white fears about Black and brown people. And it’s impossible to impose tough-on-crime solutions without disproportionate (and unfair) impacts on their lives. It matters that we get the story on crime right, in all its complexity, because there are people at that other end of society’s sticks and carrots.

“We just sort of fill in with whatever causal explanation is most recent and most at the ready, which I guess is just how our brains work,” Miller said. “But if we get the causal story wrong, they’re the ones who will [bear] the brunt.”

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