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Eric Litke
By Eric Litke June 24, 2020

Claim about violence in Democratic cities overreaches

If Your Time is short

  • This post starts out by ranking cities based on their FBI death stats, which the FBI warns against doing

  • Yes, cities are generally more violent, and they skew Democratic, but that’s correlation -- not causation.

  • Violence stems from a small percentage of the population and geography in a city, so connecting that to the overall politics is a stretch at best.

Are areas populated by Democrats more violent? 

That’s the fundamental claim in a viral Facebook post connecting murder rates and partisan leanings in America’s largest cities.

The June 16, 2020, post lists "America’s deadliest cities," including Milwaukee, citing FBI crime data. It then labels each as having a "Democrat majority" before concluding with this: "We don’t need gun control, we need Democrat control!"

This post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook).

The claim raises two questions on the accuracy of the "deadliest" label and the partisan leanings. But the third — bigger — question is whether it’s reasonable to connect the two.

Let’s dive in.

Cities list is outdated

The graphic’s "deadliest" label is attributed to the FBI Uniform Crime Report. We’ll take that to refer to the "murder and non-negligent manslaughter" data the FBI compiles annually for every city in the US.

There are a few issues here.

First, the varied demographic and cultural factors at play in each city make comparing raw data like this a questionable exercise. The FBI explicitly warns against this type of ranking:

These rough rankings provide no insight into the numerous variables that mold crime in a particular town, city, county, state, tribal area, or region. Consequently, they lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting communities and their residents. Valid assessments are possible only with careful study and analysis of the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction

In addition, the ranking compiled here is out of date.

Eight of the cities listed in the graphic — including Atlanta, Cincinnati and Oakland — are no longer among the 25 with the highest per-capita rate of murder and manslaughter, based on the 2018 FBI crime data, which is the latest available.

Party affiliation is hard to pin down

The second element of the claim, the party affiliation, is trickier to pin down.

We’re taking this claim to refer to the politics of the city as a whole, rather than the leadership, since the "majority" reference and the adaptation of the gun control phrase both seem to refer to a general group more than those in authority.

We would typically use a recent national election such as the 2016 presidential race to compare communities around the country. But election results are traditionally reported at state and county levels, not the city level.

We did find an analysis that looked at Metropolitan Statistical Areas around cities. But these areas include surrounding counties that are more suburban (and Republican), so it wouldn’t be reasonable to compare voting data from that larger area to crime data from within city limits.

But suffice it to say, urban areas vote Democratic.

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The New York Times broke down 2016 results at the precinct level, and the maps show a clear pattern across the country of concentrated Democratic voting in densely-populated urban centers, with increasing Republican support in the outlying areas.

The pattern applies for cities throughout the list in the Facebook post: St. Louis, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Chicago, even smaller cities like Dayton, Ohio.

Elected leadership skews heavily Democratic in these cities as well. Among the 25 cities with the highest murder/manslaughter rate in 2018, three had Republican mayors, according to Ballotpedia and our research. (But again, the FBI discourages ranking cities in this way.) Some of those cities, like Milwaukee, are led by a Democrat even if the office is officially nonpartisan.

Connecting violence and party not reasonable

All of which brings us to the core question: is it reasonable to connect the violence and partisanship?

In short: no.

"I don’t think there’s any data that would allow us to draw a causal conclusion here," said David Weisburd, executive director of the Center for Evidence Based Crime Policy at George Mason University. "Somehow arguing that Democrats cause crime or something of that sort just doesn’t fit the history of crime prevention in the U.S." 

If you interpret the claim as referring to Democratic leadership, Weisburd notes President Bill Clinton had one of the strongest recent administrations in terms of funding the criminal justice system.

But more broadly, linking crime and votes simply doesn’t reflect how crime works.

Studies have repeatedly found that urban crime is not a widespread phenomenon — like voting is — but a product of small groups of people in small areas. 

One 2015 study examined crime networks in Chicago and found 70% of nonfatal gun injuries occur within networks that contain just 6% of the city’s population. Another study that year found crime across a number of cities was concentrated in "microgeographic hot spots."

Weisburd said his research revealed a "law of crime concentration": Across an array of large cities, 1% of city streets account for about 25% of the crime, and 5% of streets account for about 50% of the crime.

An array of local socioeconomic and cultural factors play a role in which areas yield that concentrated crime. But it’s a lot more than politics.

A 2018 study from Boston University found racial segregation is a key risk factor for firearm homicide. An array of other local factors skew homicide rates and make a raw ranking a poor tool for understanding what’s happening, said David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a 2019 series on homicides.

"You get a number. It’s completely accurate. And it’s deeply unrepresentative of what’s going on," Kennedy told the Journal Sentinel. "Many American cities are the product of a long, long historical reality of white supremacy and racial violence and disproportionate action by the criminal justice system."

Our ruling

A viral Facebook post links "America’s deadliest cities" with having a "Democrat majority," implying a causal connection.

The data cited has some fundamental issues, notably that it uses out-of-date FBI data and ranks cities by crime rate when the FBI specifically warns against doing so. 

This glosses over the array of intensely local factors that influence crime. Violent crime in particular stems from a limited group of people in a limited area, so assuming that segment has a particular political bent based on the city at large — and that their violence stems from those politics — is a stretch at best.

Large cities do have more crime. And they do have more Democrats — both in terms of general voting and local leadership. But it’s a classic example of correlation without evidence of causality.

We rate this Mostly False.

Our Sources

Facebook post, June 16, 2020

FBI, FBI Releases 2018 Crime Statistics, Sept. 30, 2019

New York Times, An Extremely Detailed Map of the 2016 Election, July 25, 2018

Ballotpedia, Party affiliation of the mayors of the 100 largest cities, accessed June 23, 2020

ScienceDirect, Tragic, but not random: The social contagion of nonfatal gunshot injuries, January 2015

Criminology, The law of crime concentration and the criminology of place, May 6, 2016

Boston University, Residential Segregation Associated with Black–White Disparity in Firearm Homicide Rates, July 13, 2018

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, In one of America's most segregated cities, there's unequal violence and unequal justice, July 10, 2019

Bloomberg, Mapping How America's Metro Areas Voted, Dec. 1, 2016

Interview with David Weisburd, executive director of the Center for Evidence Based Crime Policy, George Mason University, June 23, 2020

Interview with Patrick Adler, research associate, University of Toronto School of Cities, June 19, 2020

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Claim about violence in Democratic cities overreaches

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