Violent crimes have been decreasing for decades, despite public perception

Despite public perception, violent crime has been declining for decades. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the national murder rate dropped 5.6 percent last year. Photo courtesy of Statista.

Trevor Stauffer
Staff Writer

Despite what popular media outlets might portray, violent crime has been decreasing in the US. Although the nation has experienced periodic upticks, the number of violent crimes has been trending steadily downwards.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, last year saw a 1.1 percent decrease in violent crime nationwide, while the murder rate dropped 5.6 percent. This statistic was drawn directly from FBI reports. While 2016 and 2015 had both seen upticks in violent crime, they were still part of an overall drop that has been taking place for decades.

The fact that the United States is facing a clear, sustained, and statistically significant decrease in violent crime sounds wrong. In a context of rampant gang violence and heartbreaking attacks on schoolchildren, how can it be possible that violence isn’t rising? How can the Department of Justice be believed when they report that violent crime has dropped every year but one from 2007 to 2014?

Justin Wolfers, a journalist for the New York Times, argues that our perceptions simply don’t reflect reality. He submits that our notions are drawn from terrifying individual stories, not the larger trends.

“[It is] far better to ignore the anecdotes and focus instead on the big picture,” he says. “[T]he hard data tells us: there’s been a remarkable decline in crime.”

Millersville University professor of anthropology, Justin Garcia, agrees. He believes that our notions of violent crime are distorted by “sensationalism in the media” and a natural human interest in danger. He thinks violence and horror in the news persist for the same reasons they do on Netflix and other video outlets: entertainment.

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But despite a downward trend in crime, the data is not completely positive. 2015 and 2016 did see worrying increases in violent crime, as reported by the New York Times article “Violent Crime in US Rises for Second Consecutive Year.” While theories abound as to the root cause, violent crime rates increased by about 4 percent both years. But to most experts, including those at the Brennan Center for Justice, these years represent small blips on the radar that otherwise reveal a continued downward trend.

Public perceptions have followed an inverse trend compared to actual violent crime rates. A report compiled by the Pew Research Center showed that violent crime dropped by about 33 percent between 2000 and 2010. But over that same timeframe, people perceived an increase of about 60 percent in violent crime compared to the previous year.

While violent crime in the US certainly remains a tragic problem, statistics provide some degree of reassurance: we’re slowly heading in the right direction. In some ways, the progress being made is surprisingly positive. After all, we’re fighting genetic and cultural inclinations to violence that evolved over hundreds of millions of years. That we could make so much progress in a span of decades should hint toward a more hopeful, safer future.