One of President Donald Trump’s biggest campaign themes was that the United States is experiencing a crime plague of historical proportions. On Feb. 7, the newly elected chief executive invited a group of county sheriffs to the White House -- and proceeded to cite a startling crime statistic.
"The murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years, right?" Trump said. "Did you know that? Forty-seven years. I used to use that -- I’d say that in a speech and everybody was surprised, because the press doesn’t tell it like it is. It wasn’t to their advantage to say that. But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, from 45 to 47 years."
There’s a reason the press didn’t tout that figure — the statement was incorrect.
Trump has, on occasion, accurately stated a statistic along these lines. A day after talking with the sheriffs, Trump offered a more accurate version of this statistic during an address to the Major Cities Chiefs Association winter conference. And during the second presidential debate, Trump said, "We have an increase in murder within our cities, the biggest in 45 years."
However, there’s a difference between saying the country’s largest cities experienced their biggest annual increase in homicides in more than four decades (as Trump said during the debate) and saying that the country is experiencing its highest murder rate overall in more than four decades (as he told the sheriffs).
The national homicide rate is considerably lower than its peak in the 1990s:
The chart does show a clear spike between 2014 and 2015, but it’s not enough to reverse a decades-long trend in the national homicide rate. The preliminary statistics for 2016 -- which are not an apples-to-apples comparison to the full-year numbers used in this graph -- suggest that homicides rose once again between 2015 and 2016, by 5.2 percent.
But what’s also clear in this graph is that the overall homicide rate -- even accounting for the upward bumps in 2015 and potentially in 2016 -- is nowhere near the peak levels of the 1990s. The following graph shows raw totals (not rates) for murders going back to 1971. This graph shows the same peak period -- the early 1990s.
Specifically, the number of murders declined by 42 percent between 1993 and 2014, even as the U.S. population rose by 25 percent over the same period. So while homicides have recently risen -- a legitimate concern, experts say -- they are far below their high levels of the early 1990s, when the nation’s population was much smaller.
"Violent crime rates are up compared with historic lows, and they are still very, very low compared with just five or 10 years ago," Raymond Paternoster, a University of Maryland criminologist, told us in October.
Alan Lizotte, a University at Albany criminologist, agreed. "A small increase between two time points is not an increase when the 20-year trend is downward," he said in October. "If it went on for several years, it might indicate an increase."
Trump told the sheriffs, "The murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years."
Actually, the highest murder rates in recent memory occurred during the early 1990s; after that, the rate fell dramatically until 2014, at which point it ticked up. That uptick did represent the biggest single-year rise in more than four decades, but that’s very different than what Trump said. We rate his statement False.