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Cordon tape around an active crime scene. (Shutterstock) Cordon tape around an active crime scene. (Shutterstock)

Cordon tape around an active crime scene. (Shutterstock)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg July 9, 2021

GOP tweet misfires in linking crime trends to Democratic policies

If Your Time is short

  • Homicides are up across a group of 154 cities, but more than half saw no change or a decrease, and the broad category of all violent crime has plateaued across the group.

  • Democratic leaders and most in their party oppose defunding the police.

  • Many factors might have shaped crime trends, including the pandemic, widespread summer protests, and a struggling economy.

Republicans see a winning issue in linking crime to Democratic policies.

When homicides spiked in the second half of 2020, President Donald Trump wielded it as a campaign issue, saying Republicans would restore order to crime-ridden Democratic-led cities.

He lost his race, but the GOP attacks continue. In a recent tweet, the Republican National Committee blamed rising crime on Democrats.

"Crime is escalating to a level we haven’t seen in decades as a direct result of Democrats’ defund the police movement and Biden-Harris open-border policies," Republicans tweeted June 29.

We asked the RNC for the data behind the claims in the tweet. Their response included nothing on the link to police defunding. On the open border part, they pointed to news coverage about an increase in fentanyl seizures at the border, high-speed chases in South Texas, and FBI director Christopher Wray talking about an epidemic of drug smuggling and other illegal activity at the border. 

The RNC tweet is rife with inaccuracies. But its biggest flaw is the unfounded assertion that crime rate trends were a "direct result" of Democratic policies.

A few key errors

Homicides increased in 2020. It’s possible that the toll could have topped 19,000 last year. 

But the RNC tweet is not narrowly about rising homicides. It encompasses several other claims that are flawed:

"Open-border policies": The articles the RNC cited said nothing linking activity at the border to a spike in the national incidence of murders or other crimes. We found no independent research that argued that point.

Criminologist and law professor Paul Cassell at the University of Utah noted that when murders began to increase rapidly in mid-2020, immigration was stable or declining.

"And, obviously, Democrats did not control immigration policy in May 2020," Cassell said. "So any linkage between the 2020 homicide increase and immigration policies seems quite dubious."

Historic highs: The RNC tweet talked about crime reaching levels not seen in decades. Not only do they lack the data to confirm that, but based on the FBI’s latest available data for homicides and other preliminary data, the U.S. is not on pace to reach the heights seen in the mid-1990s. 

"Defund the police": The RNC tweet suggested that "defund the police" is a core Democratic policy. It is not. A handful of Democrats have spoken out for it, but during the 2020 campaign, candidate Joe Biden rejected the movement. And his 2022 budget requested an increase of $304 million for police to build ties within the communities they patrol.

Some Democratic-led cities did cut police budgets last year, but not many. Among the 50 largest cities, police spending as a percentage of general expenditures went up an average of 13.7%. At least 24 cities increased police funding for 2021.

Crime trend: Homicides are up

The RNC tweet speaks of crime broadly, but it’s homicides in particular that have caused alarm since a sharp rise in the summer of 2020. That coincided with the anti-police-violence protests that spread across the country in June following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The calls to defund the police gained prominence the same month.

One problem in talking about crime at this moment is that no one yet has a national picture of crime for 2020, let alone the first half of 2021. The FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report is the most comprehensive data set, and the FBI hasn’t published the 2020 edition yet. 

Other data sets lack the scope of the FBI’s full assessment, but they all point in the same direction: Homicides are up.

Featured Fact-check

A preliminary FBI crime report for 154 cities says murders rose 10% in the first quarter of 2021 compared with a year earlier. The Major Cities Chiefs Association found a 29% rise in homicides for 63 cities in the first quarter of 2021. And the latest report from Council on Criminal Justice, an independent source of crime data, looked at 24 cities and found homicides rose by 24% in the first quarter.

The topline numbers don’t tell the whole story, however.

For example, in the first-quarter FBI release on 154 cities, the increase in homicides was concentrated in 40% of the cities. The remaining 60% saw murders drop or stay the same. As for violent crime generally — including homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — the number remained just about the same across the full group of cities, undercutting the RNC’s broad-brush claim about escalating crime.

The Council on Criminal Justice’s data on weekly police reports found that homicide rates generally fell after October 2020 — from a bit over 5 deaths per 100,000 to about 3 per 100,000 by March 2021.

That could reflect seasonal changes; homicides tend to fall in the cooler months. But the report’s authors say other unknown factors could be at work.

No cause and effect

The RNC’s claim that rising crime was a "direct result" of Democratic policies lacks evidence, and experts say it ignores some of the major events of 2020 that also likely had an effect on crime.

"The pandemic hit especially hard in exactly those neighborhoods where a lot of violence happens anyway," said City University of New York criminologist Candace McCoy. "Services that connect with teens were shutting down. Families were hit with people getting sick, some of them dying. More young adults were left to themselves."

Criminologist Eileen Ahlin at Penn State-Harrisburg noted that the economic downturn also mattered.

"Unemployment and declining mental health routinely affect crime rates," Ahlin said. "Last year we saw both at play." 

On top of the pandemic and the disruptions it brought, there were the nationwide protests spurred by the death of George Floyd.

Cassell at the University of Utah said that played a role, because it made police less likely to engage with people who might commit violence.

"Police pulled back from the kinds of aggressive steps that are often needed to most effectively fight homicides," Cassell said.

Cassell also said that dealing with marches could have taken police away from other activities. Researchers disagree whether the protests themselves had any effect. Regardless, Cassell called the GOP link between crime and a defund policy "dubious." 

Even the pandemic and the protests might not fully explain the trend in homicides. As the Council on Criminal Justice report noted, the "homicide increase actually began in 2019, prior to the pandemic and well before protests against police violence spread across the country."

Looking at the first three months of 2020, murders rose 20% from a year earlier. The pandemic shutdown didn’t take place until mid-March, and the protests didn’t begin until late May.

Our ruling

The Republican National Committee tweeted that "crime is escalating to a level we haven’t seen in decades as a direct result of Democrats’ defund the police movement and Biden-Harris open-border policies."

It’s not true that crime is rising to a level we haven’t seen in decades. 

Homicides are up, but there’s no evidence that the trend is tied to a police defunding policy or Democrats’ border policies, let alone that it’s a "direct result."

Experts say many other factors may have played a role, including racial-justice protests and disruptions caused by the pandemic. 

We rate this claim False.

 

Our Sources

Republican National Committee, tweet, June 29, 2021

FBI, Quarterly data - Q1 2021, June 21, 2021

FBI, Crime data explorer, accessed July 2, 2021

FBI, Overview of Preliminary Uniform Crime Report, January–June, 2020, Sept. 15, 2020

Major Cities Chiefs Association, Violent crime survey: 2020 end of year, February 2021

Major Cities Chiefs Association, Violent crime survey: 2021 first quarter comparisons, May 2021

Council on Criminal Justice, Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities 2020 Year-End Update, Feb. 5, 2021

Congressional Research Service, Recent Violent Crime Trends in the United States, June 20, 2018

Bloomberg City Lab, Cities Say They Want to Defund the Police. Their Budgets Say Otherwise., Jan. 12, 2021

City Crime Stats, COVID and Crime: Key Findings, Dec. 31, 2020

SJ Quinney College of Law, University of Utah, Explaining the Recent Homicide Spikes in U.S. Cities: The 'Minneapolis Effect' and the Decline in Proactive Policing, September 2020

New York Times, With Homicides Rising, Cities Brace for a Violent Summer, June 1, 2021

Factcheck.org, House GOP’s Misplaced Blame for Rising Homicides, July 7, 2021

Vox, The rise in murders in the US, explained, Dec. 2, 2020

The Intercept, What drove the historically large murder spike in 2020?, Feb. 21, 2021

Washington Post, The complicated political jockeying over increases in violent crime, June 22, 2021

Washington Examiner, Biden shows he still doesn’t care about violent crime, June 24, 2021

Keisha Lance Bottoms, MSNBC, Interview, June 18, 2021

White House, Biden-Harris Administration Announces Comprehensive Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gun Crime and Ensure Public Safety, June 23. 2021

Vox, Confronting the myth that "black culture" is responsible for violent crime in America, Sept. 1, 2016

PolitiFact, Facebook post makes unproven claim about police funding and homicides, May 28, 2021

PolitiFact, Ron DeSantis’ misleading claim about crime, police funding, May 4, 2021

PolitiFact, Some police budgets are increasing, but evidence of national trend falls short, June 18, 2021

Email exchange, Richard Rosenfeld, professor, Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri-St. Louis, July 7, 2021

Email exchange, Paul Cassell, professor of criminal law , S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah, July 6, 2021

Email exchange, Emma Vaughn, national press secretary, Republican National Committee, July 6, 2021

Interview, Candace McCoy, professor of criminal justice, City University of New York, July 6, 2021

Interview, Eileen M. Ahlin, associate professor of criminal justice, Penn State-Harrisburg, July 6, 2021

 

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