Judging from the headlines, it would appear as though the United States was enduring a murderous crime spree. The FBI released its annual crime stats Monday and it showed an almost 11 percent increase in murders in 2015 from 2014 — the most significant leap recorded since 1971.
It's the kind of stat that makes for a good headline, and one that also validates the view, perhaps bolstered by scenes of unrest on TV, that the US cities are becoming more dangerous places akin to the "war zones" Republican candidate Donald Trump has described. It would also play into a long-term trend observed by Gallup pollsters: Year after year, even as violent crime across the US has reached record lows, a majority of Americans surveyed believe that crime is higher than it was the previous year.
But not so fast. While an almost 11 percent jump in murder rate undeniably sounds concerning, 2015 actually had the third-lowest murder rate of any year since 1991, when the rate stood at 9.8 murders for every 100,000 people. In 2015, 5,696 people were murdered in the US, at a rate of 4.9 per 100,000 people. In 2014, stats showed that 14,164 were murdered, a rate of 4.4.
"If you think about it, murder rates have been driven so low, in a sense, the only way to go is up," said Dr. James Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University. "The lower you get, the more likely you are to get a rebound."
Fox suggested that 2015 may end up being an outlier, not the beginning of a years-long uptick in violent crime. "A one-year change isn't a trend," he said. "It's a change."
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, speaking at a violence-reduction summit in Little Rock, Arkansas on Monday, urged people to avoid jumping to conclusions about the data, and to continue to address the pockets of the country truly plagued by violent crime.
"The residents of communities where violence remains a fact of daily life care little whether overall crime rates are up and down," Lynch said. "In the raft of data and analysis that can so often define our work, we must never forget that all of our numbers reflect the lives of real people."
Further, when the data is broken down, it becomes clear that just a handful of cities are driving the murder rate increase: Milwaukee, Baltimore and Chicago. Wisconsin's murder rate was up a whopping 50 percent, but Milwaukee accounted for 145 of those murders (up from 86 in 2014.)
Baltimore accounted for 344 of Maryland's 516 murders. The state murder rate rose by 42.5 percent in 2015 — though in 2014, the rate was lower than it had been in 20 years. And in Illinois, which saw just an 8 percent uptick in murders, 478 of the state's 744 killings took place in Chicago.
Other increases were felt in areas not particularly known for violent gun violence, like the Plains states including Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. They collectively saw their murder rates rise by 28 percent.
A Brennan Center analysis of crime in the 30 largest cities in 2015 found similar results; a national murder rate that rose 13.2 percent, with half of that increase attributable to just three cities: Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.