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by Peter Moskos

December 26, 2015

Did anybody say "crime wave!"?

No. (Update: Actually, turns out a more people did than I thought. See the comments.)

But lot's of people are refuting the claim, nevertheless.

Fivethirtyeight.com says:
Scare Headlines Exaggerated The U.S. Crime Wave: If you’ve read reports of a U.S. crime wave this year and wondered how many cities it was really affecting, you’re not alone.
Which headlines are these?

In the Washington Post Radley Balko says:
At various times over the past 12 months, we heard dire predictions of a “nationwide crime wave”
Have we?

According to Law Enforcement Leaders: "Some cities have seen a rise in murder, but these are isolated incidents — not a new crime wave — which local leaders are taking steps to address." Glad we set the record straight.

Mother Jones reassures us: "No 'Crime Wave'". They link to much cited Brennan Center report (much cited among lefties trying to say "everything is fine!" with regards to crime):
One year's increase does not necessarily portend a coming wave of violent crime.

Ultimately, all the links about "crime wave" seem to go back to this one friggin' May headline for Heather Mac Donald piece in the Wall Street Journal. One. And Mac Donald never even said there was a "crime wave." She never uses the phrase. It's only in the headline.

[Headlines are weird things. They do become how a story is known. But do not judge an article (or the author) by a headline. Authors do not write the headlines; headline editors write headlines. Authors have no say in them. And sometimes -- and I speak from experience -- the headline does not begin to capture the point of your piece. Other times they get it right.]

This all came to mind because I was tweeted with my man, Andrew Papachristos, and the subject of "moral panic" came up with regards to the "crime wave":
Who is all this "they" hyping a "moral panic," I wondered.

So I googled "'crime wave' 2015" and found only people saying, "don't believe the hype about the crime wave!" It's a classic straw man argument, making up an false position in order to refute it.

Best I can tell, the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Marshall Project, the Brennan Center, Mother Jones, NPR, even Fox News... they've all smugly refuted the "crime wave" claimed by nobody.

But in the meantime, let us ask why is crime sharply up in some cities and murders roughly 10 percent higher than 2014. That seems to be the touchy subject many are trying to avoid. Why? Some ideas in my previous post.


bacchys said...

Well, not only is crime not really increasing nationally, 2015 looks to be the second-safest year on record for the police.

Good news.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Was anyone saying "nationwide crime wave"? Why yes! It was... wait for it... your beloved Heather MacDonald!
and deservedly called out for it

Moskos said...

Are you an idiot? Did you not read this post (and the previous one) before commenting on it?

Concerned citizen said...

When considering the Brennan report's findings (homicide is up; other crimes are slightly down), keep in mind that homicide is the only crime stat that is bulletproof. Unquestionable.

When they say homicide is up 11%, we can believe it.

When they say other crimes are down slightly, maybe it's true, maybe it isn't. Maybe, in this newly charged environment, people are reporting fewer of the other crimes. Maybe, some police departments are indulging in "creative accounting" (incorrect classification; down-grading complaints) in order to keep their numbers looking good.

Whereas, no matter what, homicide gets reported/recorded at nearly 100% completeness and accuracy. There's a dead body. It gets sent to the medical examiner. He makes a determination. It's properly classified. It's reported/recorded.

Moskos said...

Generally I only look at homicides and assume a correlation between killings and crime. Doesn't work so well in places without much homicide, though.

Shootings are even better as a stat (but harder to easily get).

The homicide drop in NYC in the 2000? Seems mostly due to better medical care. Shootings hardly dropped at all during that decade.

Assaults and the like? Too dependent on people reporting (undoubtedly way down in Baltimore this year, for instance) and reclassification (very gray area between misdemeanor and felony assault).

Moskos said...

But to your point, yes, if homicides are up 11%, that is a real 11% increase. What they say about crime in general? I don't buy it. Not at all. Not the Brennan Center's fault, mind you. But I still don't buy it.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I did, I'll admit, miss the paragraph where you note that the term "crime wave" was only used in McDonald's headline, and she can't necessarily be blamed for the phrasing. Mea culpa.
Beyond that, the phrase seems to have appeared in a lot of right-wing sites, but not much mainstream press.
But there are no shortage of articles saying a Ferguson effect is leading to a major rise in crime, and this is hardly the first time an eye-catching headline has produced a popular meme, so looking specifically for that two word phrase seems like cherry-picking.

Unknown said...

Sorry man, but it was in the freakin headline of the WSJ, not to mention all sorts of non-mainstream press. Sure, you're correct that the author doesn't write the headline. But, it's plain silliness to suggest that means the headline somehow doesn't matter. The headline, as you seem to note at one point, is obviously most visible part of the article. You're ignoring the obvious and are way off on this one.

Moskos said...

Maybe. And thanks for those links.

direwolfc said...

This was a nice piece in Slate addressing this issue:


Thankfully, Tracy Mearest, James Alan Fox, and others have stopped writing about Baltimore now that we don't conveniently fit into their narrative that the massive increase in homicides is just statistical noise. Now mostly no one writes about us. Better this that being the unwilling poster child of some armchair expert's pet theories.

Moskos said...

I'm glad you highlight that piece. Leon is a smart and good writer. And I'm pleased to note that I contributed to that piece, in talking it over with him.

I also just spoke to a Sun reporter about the year in crime and needless to say, I said that the murders in Baltimore are not just some statistical quirk

Jay Livingston said...

Wave seems to be giving way to surge. I Googled "crime surge 2015."
"About 16,300,000 results (0.45 seconds)"
The first page included
"Crime Surges as Politicians Propose Lax Sentencing and ...
www.breitbart.com/. . . ."
"Several big U.S. cities see homicide rates surge - USA Today"
"Is a new crime wave on the horizon? - CNN.com" (NB: "wave")
"FBI chief tries to deal with the 'Ferguson effect' - CNNPolitics .."

That's just the first page. Also "Ferguson effect" does not itself contain the terms "crime" or "wave." But it certainly implies that the cause is police reaction to criticism and protest and that the effect is an increase/surge/wave of crime.

When the head of the FBI says in so many words that there's a Ferguson effect, you can't really claim that liberals are making up the whole idea and refuting a proposition that hasn't been proposed.

Moskos said...

I agree. I should have done a more thorough search.