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A Milwaukee police officer on a motorcycle drives along the route of a Veterans’ Day parade in Nov. 5, 2022. (AP) A Milwaukee police officer on a motorcycle drives along the route of a Veterans’ Day parade in Nov. 5, 2022. (AP)

A Milwaukee police officer on a motorcycle drives along the route of a Veterans’ Day parade in Nov. 5, 2022. (AP)

By Elliot Hughes March 22, 2024

If Your Time is short

  • The Republican Party of Wisconsin made the statement about Milwaukee’s violent crime rate in 2023.

  • Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson said the city had “double digit decreases in homicide, vehicle theft, and property crime from 2022 to 2023.”

  • The Republican Party’s statement was based on a report using flawed and incomplete national data from 2021.

  • Johnson’s statement is accurate, according to Milwaukee Police Department data.

  • Ranking cities by crime data is not considered a good idea.

Crime is always a big issue during election season, and in Wisconsin, there are already hints at how the topic might be discussed as things heat up toward November.

Even though the state’s governorship isn’t on the ballot this year, the Republican Party of Wisconsin recently took a shot at Gov. Tony Evers regarding Milwaukee’s crime numbers.

In a January post on X (formerly known as Twitter), the state GOP’s account said Evers’ 2023 record included "Milwaukee suffering from the third-highest violent crime rate in America." It listed two other items and concluded that "Wisconsin deserves better in 2024."

About a month later, Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson, whose office is on the April ballot, made his own assertion in an X post: "Because of our partnership with police and the community, in Milwaukee we saw double digit decreases in homicide, vehicle theft, and property crime from 2022 to 2023."

There are plenty of misunderstandings about crime and how it’s measured in the U.S. Are the two statements accurate? Do they even represent a fair way of judging crime trends in a city?

Time for a closer look.

Ranking cities based on crime rates is not considered a good idea

Matt Fisher, the state GOP’s spokesperson, said the source behind the party’s post was a story by Spectrum News 1. That story cited a May 2023 report from about cities with the highest crime rates.

For one, that report is based on FBI data from 2021, not 2023.

It wasn’t until March 2024 that the FBI made preliminary data available for nationwide crime trends in 2023, and nothing firmer than that is expected until the fall.

But even the FBI warns against ranking and comparing cities based on its data "because there are many factors that cause the nature and type of crime to vary from place to place."

The agency lists more than a dozen, including population density, urbanization, economic conditions, transportation, cultural factors, climate and strength of law enforcement.

There’s one other factor the FBI cites that’s particularly important, and particularly important as it relates to 2021 crime data — how crime is reported.

There are two components to consider. One is that the majority of violent and property crimes aren’t reported to law enforcement.

The federal government conducts a National Crime Victimization Survey, which measures how much crimes are underreported. Surveys each year from 2019 through 2022 suggest that only four out of 10 violent victimizations are reported to police. One in three property victimizations are reported.

The second component deals with how well the FBI collected crime data in 2021.

2021 FBI crime data is not reliable

The crime data the FBI collected for 2021 is flawed and "particularly useless," said Jeff Asher, a crime data analyst who runs AH Datalytics, a data analysis research firm.

That year, the FBI switched to a system of collecting data from law enforcement agencies across the country. The goal is to produce more nuanced crime data. Asher said the switch was a mess in its first year. When normally around 95% of agencies would report crime data to the FBI, in 2021, a little more than half reported, he said.

For example, Asher said, of the cities with a population of 500,000 to 1 million — which would include Milwaukee — only 24 of them reported data in 2021, compared with 35 in 2022.

Asher said’s conclusion about Milwaukee’s violent crime is accurate based on its methodology and the data it had.

But he also said it was "like saying the Saints are the best professional football team in Louisiana. If you’ve got a very narrow definition of your problem, then you can use the data to work however you want.

"I certainly would advise against using rankings from websites that are using old data that aren’t acknowledging severe problems with the underlying data."

Comparing Milwaukee with Milwaukee

In general, Asher said it’s better to judge a city’s crime numbers by measuring how they’ve changed over time.

That’s what Johnson did in his post, although he only compared two years of data. But his claim is correct, according to the Milwaukee Police Department. The city had double-digit percentage drops in homicides (20%), car theft (23%) and property crime (13%) from 2022 to 2023.

Of course, the further back you look, the more perspective you get.

In 2020, the U.S. had a historic 29% increase in homicides, while violent crime in general rose 5.6%, according to the FBI. Those trends are often attributed to the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. Car theft has also skyrocketed nationally in recent years.

The country has slowly been recovering since. But homicides, aggravated assaults and car theft remain high in cities across the nation compared with 2019, according to the Council on Criminal Justice.

That’s true in Milwaukee, too. According to police data, homicides (74%), aggravated assaults (20%) and car theft (79%) were still up in 2023 compared to 2019, despite big drops compared with 2022.

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Our Sources

Republican Party of Wisconsin tweet, Jan. 23, 2024

Cavalier Johnson tweet, Feb. 25, 2024

Spectrum News 1, Milwaukee ranks third for violent crimes nationwide, May 16, 2023, 2023 Crime Rates in U.S. Cities Report, May 16, 2023

Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics: Their Proper Use, May 2017

Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI Releases 2020 Crime Statistics press release, Sept. 27, 2021

Milwaukee Police Department, crime data, 2019-2023

U.S. Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2019

U.S. Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2020

U.S. Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2021

U.S. Justice Department, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2022

Council on Criminal Justice, Crime Trends in U.S. Cities: Year-End 2023 Update, January 2024

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Elliot Hughes

In context: Judging Milwaukee’s crime rate