Americans should be able to trust any data or statistics published by the federal government. But in this new era of “alternative facts,” some criminologists are expressing concern that the integrity of crime data used to shape criminal justice policy, drive decisions about law enforcement funding and personnel, and tackle problems like gun violence could be under threat.
In fact, just hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, the White House website touted a misleading crime statistic. On a page entitled “Standing Up For Our Law Enforcement Community,” the White House bemoaned the “dangerous anti-police atmosphere in America” and that “killings have risen by 50 percent” in Washington, D.C.
There were 135 homicides in the nation’s capital — a 17 percent decrease from the previous year, according to D.C. metro data from 2016. In a statement to VICE News, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department also pointed out that violent crime overall dropped by 10 percent last year.
It’s possible that the Trump administration mistakenly cited an old statistic — in 2015, murders increased by approximately 50 percent from the previous year. That year, however, was an outlier in a steady two-decade decline in violent crime in the district. Regardless, the White House website was amended Wednesday morning to say instead that “killings have risen by 50 percent in the past four years.”
“I can’t think of a time in my adult life where the White House puts something out and you start with wondering if there’s any truthful basis for it,” said Philip Stinson, a professor of criminology at Bowling Green State University who has collected extensive data about police misconduct. “It’s bizarre that the facts don’t matter, science doesn’t matter, and good data doesn’t matter. There seems to be a very cavalier attitude [in the White House] for the purpose of creating confusion.”
Other statistics cited by the White House fail to tell the whole truth. “In 2015, homicides increased by 17 percent in America’s fifty largest cities,” the same page reads. “That’s the largest increase in 25 years.” PolitiFact did the math, however, and determined this statement to be “mostly true.” Homicides did spike in 2015, and preliminary FBI data for the first half of 2016 also reflect an increase in overall violent crime — but those figures fail to convey the broader downward trend in violence over the past two decades.
“It’s very misleading to point to outliers and use them to make a point,” Stinson said. “It sets a dangerous precedent, and that’s what everyone’s worried about.”
As it stands, crime numbers themselves aren’t always completely sound. The reliability of annual and biannual FBI crime data has frequently been challenged, in part because it relies on self-reporting by law enforcement officials who may be motivated to either exaggerate or downplay crime in their jurisdictions. For example, a Los Angeles Times analysis found that the LAPD misclassified about 14,000 crimes between 2005 and 2012, leading to an apparent 7 percent drop overall in violent crime.
An analysis of homicide rates in the 30 largest cities in 2015 by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy institute, found that a small handful of cities — Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Chicago — drove the uptick that year. Like D.C., Baltimore then saw homicides decline in 2016.
James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University, points out that previous patterns in crime increases and declines suggest that an uptick in violent crime is both inevitable and overdue. The numbers have been so low, according to him, that the only way they can go is up. “It’s the law of criminology,” Fox said. “What goes up must go down.”
So is the White House cherrypicking the data?
“I don’t know if you could accuse them of fudging, but there’s no ‘carnage’ here,” James Lynch, former director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Now a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland, Lynch was referencing Trump’s Inauguration Day speech, when he said “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
“We’re still talking about historically low murder rates,” Lynch said.
But it’s not uncommon for lawmakers to push particular crime stats to fit their own narrative. “There have been times in the past when politicians, including in the White House, have commented on FBI data, sometimes taken credit for a drop [in crime], for example,” Fox said.
Trump touted himself as the “law-and-order candidate,” vowing to get tough on violent crime (which he described as “rampant”) and insisting that the previous administration had unfairly maligned the nation’s police. And his willingness to disseminate misinformation appears to eclipse his peers. The president repeatedly cited statistics on the campaign trail that were flawed or false; for example, he tweeted an inaccurate and racially problematic statistic about black-on-white homicides compared to white-on-black homicides. And on Sunday, his adviser Kellyanne Conway famously characterized White House falsehoods as “alternative facts.”
There were also criticisms of how Trump’s predecessor handled information. The Obama administration launched the White House Police Data Initiative in response to the recommendations made by a task force formed in the wake of the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting death of Michael Brown. The goal was to heal the growing rift between police and communities by diagnosing specific problems using data like crimes, pedestrian stops, and officer assaults, and then creating targeted solutions. But not everyone was on board. Some critics saw the initiative as further evidence of creeping “federal takeover” of local policing and were concerned the Obama administration would use the data to impose uniform policies on law enforcement. Others accused Obama of obfuscating the problem of rising crime rates through the theater of a transparency initiative.
“We are all entitled to our own opinion, but not our own facts,” Lynch said, paraphrasing former U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. “If we can’t agree on the statistics, we can’t possibly govern.”