All the ways Jeff Sessions' "American carnage" op-ed was wrong

We asked four experts, including two former police officers and an ex-federal prosecutor, to fact-check the op-ed.
January 24, 2018, 11:11pm

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”

That line from President Trump — a reference to the scourge of “crime and gangs and drugs” that he said had swept the nation in recent years — was perhaps the most memorable moment from his inaugural address last January.

A year later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has declared mission accomplished in the war on “American carnage.” He wrote an op-ed on Tuesday for USA Today that draws on preliminary FBI crime statistics for the first half of 2017 to make the claim that Trump has made America safe again.

Of course, not everybody agrees with Sessions’ assessment. VICE News contacted four experts — including two former police officers and an ex-federal prosecutor — to have them fact check the op-ed. The consensus is that while crime is trending down slightly, Sessions pulled the crime stats out of context and presented them in misleading ways.

Here’s a section-by-section analysis of what the attorney general wrote:

The claim that Trump kept his promise depends on whether you believe that “American carnage” existed in the first place — and whether you think federal law enforcement policies could have an impact in just one year. From the get-go, crime data experts warned that the Trump Administration could be skewing stats to fit its agenda.

Crime overall — especially violent crime — has been on a steady downward trajectory for more than three decades. It’s true that there was an uptick in murders in several major cities over the last two years, but overall America is the safest it’s been in modern history. According to the FBI, the violent crime rate fell by 0.8 percent in the first six months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016. That’s what Sessions is giving Trump credit for.

“Presumably, his argument is that the declines are solely the result of the efforts of the Trump administration,” said Phil Stinson, an associate professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green State University and a former police officer in Dover, New Hampshire. “That is just not so. The decline in rates of violent crime — and crime in general — has followed the same trajectory for the last 20 or more years. It’s nothing new; we are seeing the same general downward trends.”

It’s also important to note that, according to the FBI, the national murder rate actually increased by about 1 percent during the first half of 2017.

Minority communities have also been disproportionately affected by law enforcement’s response to crime. Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites; African-Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32 percent of the U.S. population, but they comprise more 56 percent of all incarcerated people, according to the NAACP.

The bigger problem, researchers have found, is that crime in African-Americans and Hispanic communities is driven by socioeconomic factors, and the response from police and prosecutors has only made matters worse.

In his first remarks as after he was sworn in as attorney general last February, Sessions described the rise in violent crime as a “dangerous permanent trend.” But criminologists have insisted that it’s too early to determine whether the increase was part of a trend or merely an aberration.

For example, the murder rate increased by 10.8 percent in 2015 from 2014. At first blush, that’s an alarming jump. But Seth Stoughton, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former police officer in Tallahassee, Florida, points out that the murder rate in 2014 was the lowest recorded since 1968. Remove 2014 from the equation, and compare the 2015 murder rate to the average over the past decade. It’s only about a 2 percent increase.

The 2016 murder rate, on the other hand, spiked by nearly 12 percent over the 10-year average, but Stoughton argues that still doesn’t constitute “American carnage.”

“The definition of a trend is something that happens over time,” he said. “The fact that the murder rate jumped up for a single year suggests that it was not a trend. Instead, it was a blip.”

But the 20 percent uptick in the murder rate over 2015 and 2016 doesn’t mean that the entire country is experiencing a rash of homicides. That figure could instead be the product of localized phenomena.

Daniel Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School and former federal prosecutor, published a study last year about the factors driving the uptick in homicides. Richman and his colleague concluded that national spikes in murder rates tend to be driven by regional clusters or a handful of large cities, where factors like inequality and distrust of law enforcement combine to create fertile conditions for violence.

That appears to be exactly what happened in recent years. In 2015, Baltimore; Chicago; and Washington, D.C., accounted for more than half of the 13.2 percent increase in murder rate observed across the 30 largest cities. In 2016, the murder rate was up again by 14 percent — driven largely by a 45 percent spike in Chicago.

In 2017, the murder rate fell in most of America’s largest cities but climbed elsewhere. Here’s the preliminary breakdown from the FBI:

  • Cities with a population of 500,000 to 1 million: Murder rate up 18.7 percent.
  • Cities with a population of 250,000 to half a million: Murder rate up nearly 10 percent.
  • Cities with a population of 100,000 to 249,999: Murder rate up 8.8 percent.

By those metrics, the “American carnage” has actually gotten worse under Trump’s watch. But again, the overall murder rate is still way down compared to the 1980s and early ‘90s. Experts agree there’s no “carnage” and that it’s unwise to judge crime trends off year-to-year changes in the murder rate.

On the campaign trail, Trump routinely cited misleading or wildly inaccurate crime stats. Sessions is more careful, but experts still have issues with the way he frames the facts.

“While Trump has no problem lying or grossly inflating or exaggerating crime stats, Sessions is generally pretty right,” said Ames Grawert, an attorney at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. “He always has the data right. It’s just his presentation of it that’s skewed or wrong.”

Grawert noted that, if anything, the decline in violent crime is likely attributable to the work of state and local law enforcement. Stoughton agreed. “It’s almost certainly an exaggeration for the federal government to take credit for a change in crime or murder rates,” he said. “Federal law enforcement just isn't a major player with most crimes.”

Sessions has overstated his record on gun prosecutions before, but he’s right to say that federal firearm cases are way up under his watch. The reason is a difference in philosophy. Under Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder told his prosecutors to only pursue cases that serve “a substantial federal interest.” Sessions, however, has ordered U.S. Attorneys to pursue as many gun charges as possible.

As for the claim about MS-13, the ACLU sued Sessions last year for rounding up Central American teenagers and accusing them of gang membership with little or no proof, suggesting the arrest total might be inflated. Other experts have noted Trump administration is using MS-13 as a “boogeyman” and overstating the threat it poses to drum up support for a crackdown on sanctuary cities and other hardline immigration policies.

On the opioid crisis, Grawert said there’s a consensus among experts that the best way to solve the problem is with a public health approach — and that arresting hundreds of people on drug charges will have little impact on the violent crime rate. “The evidence over the past 20 years has shown this is something you can’t arrest your way out of,” he said.

Like violent crime, the number of officers murdered in the line of duty has been holding stable or trending down for the last decade. In 2016, 66 police officers were killed on the job, up from 41 the previous year, but still an outlier compared to historical data.

“Sessions' comparison to 2013 is particularly suspicious,” Stoughton said. In 2013, only 27 officers were murdered in the line of duty, and the next year, 51 officers were, according to Stoughton. People treated it as a massive surge, but it was actually a return to average. “Policing is getting safer and it has been getting safer since long before this administration took office,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Seth Stoughton's area of expertise. He is a former police officer, policing scholar, and law professor.

“It’s as if the entire crime decline between 2008 and 2014 didn’t happen on another president’s watch,” Grawert said. “I don’t know what to say about it other than it’s bloviating.”

In a way, crime rates are like the tides: they ebb and flow. Federal policies can help change them, but tweaking the criminal justice system isn’t and shouldn’t be the only solution, experts said.

“Resurrecting the very old, tired, discredited tough on crime playbook is such a pathetic move even for this administration,” said William Kelly, a sociology professor and director of The Center for Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at Austin. He added that there’s “no credible evidence” to suggest that tough-on-crime policies work.

“Crime is very complex,” Kelly said. “It is affected by many factors, only one of which is criminal justice policy.”