At the presidential debate the topic turned to crime.
Murders are down in New York City, Democrat Hillary Clinton said.
“No, you’re wrong. You’re wrong,” said Republican nominee Donald Trump. “Murders are up. … You check it.”
In fact, murders in many U.S. cities, including New York and Kansas City, are up … and also down. It depends on the time frame.
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On the day of the debate, coincidentally, the FBI released the nation’s yearly gold standard of crime reports, Crime in the United States for 2015. It showed that murders in New York ticked up from 333 in 2014 to 352 the following year.
The projected number of New York murders for this year is not much different: 359, according to the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice.
Still, those numbers are half of what that city and most others endured in homicides a quarter-century ago.
Almost everywhere since then the number of property crimes has plunged, too. “Overall crime” nationwide continues to sink, according to the FBI report.
Yet violent crime, for reasons unclear, has sprung back up the last two years, especially in urban areas. Kansas City was among seven U.S. communities cited by the FBI as having contributed to the spike in violence in 2015.
U.S. murders and non-negligent manslaughter rose 10.8 percent, returning roughly to 2010 levels. Homicide rates nonetheless are far below what America witnessed a generation ago.
Kansas City reflects all of this back-and-forth: In 2014, the city celebrated its lowest homicide total in more than four decades: 82 killings. The next year, the murder count shot up to 111, but that was fewer than the record 153 homicides posted in 1993.
So far in 2016 our city is on pace to suffer more killings than last year. And the national murder rate is projected to increase this year by 13 percent, with nearly half of the increase occurring in one place: Chicago.
As election-year voters, you’re apt to hear a lot of talk in coming weeks as to whether violence is trending up or down. The bottom line?
“If the frame of reference is the last 24 months, it looks like in some areas that crime is skyrocketing,” said Ken Novak, professor of criminal justice at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “But in a historical context crime is down.
“The number of homicides around the country is half what we saw in the 1980s and early ’90s.”
Remove the present-day politics and many experts will agree that violent crime trends demand study and provoke worry.
After two decades of steady decreases in the rates of crimes of all types, “something has happened in the cities these last couple of years … and nobody really knows what it is,” said Ames Grawert, counsel for the Brennan Center’s justice program. “We have to look at that.”
The center’s analysis of the FBI crime report for 2015 found that the overall crime rate dropped 2.6 percent, decreasing for the 14th year in a row. Property crimes, which commonly fluctuate with the national economy, declined more than 3 percent.
But violent crime rose 3 percent, and violence continues to climb in 2016, the Brennan Center found.
The increases are especially pronounced in the Midwest. Chicago, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City are seeing murder rates jump more than 25 percent above 2015 levels.
Then again, the survey showed that cities such as Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., and Washington, D.C., are witnessing fewer murders this year than last.
“There’s not always a clear consensus on why crime goes up or goes down,” said Thomas Abt, senior research fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Yet one new theory is gaining traction, and voters probably will be hearing about it: the so-called “Ferguson effect.”
A term coined from the 2014 police shooting of unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the argument has two sides:
▪ To many conservatives — including political commentator Heather Mac Donald, author of “The War on Cops” and originator of the theory — the Ferguson effect has made police skittish about aggressively enforcing the law. Thus crime goes up.
▪ To some liberal thinkers, the Ferguson effect has weakened trust between mostly black communities and the officers who patrol them. Thus crime goes up.
Harvard’s Abt calls that version of the Ferguson effect “legal cynicism.”
He said: “It’s a question of nuance. When people don’t trust the police, they don’t trust the law to be fair, don’t trust the criminal justice system … then they’re more inclined to take the law into their own hands.
“We don’t know for sure, but that seems to be the best explanation for what’s happened since 2014,” Abt said. “It’s unclear whether police use of force has changed. But now people are much more aware of it. That’s added to the cynicism.”
Both sides of the Ferguson effect are yet unproven.
In any event, urban violence is not apt to be solved by one stroke of federal action, said Andre Thurman, director of the Kansas City anti-violence group 100 Men of Blue Hills.
“There’s not one simple solution,” he said. “This violence taking place across the country primarily involves young people — as perpetrators and as victims …
“The older folks — regular people who desire good and do good — they’ve got to get off the couch and form an environment where they get together with the young people. It has to start individually.”
And it won’t end with this election.