A year from now Americans will be heading to the polls to select their next President. As they enter their voting booths crime will be one of the key issues. It almost always is. Along with the economy, crime is one of the most oft-noted issues of concern for voters. In a July 15-16 Newsweek poll of 1500 eligible US voters, for example, crime and policing was the fourth most cited issue for next year behind the economy, healthcare, and immigration.
Currently it appears that the public is more confident in the Republican party than the Democrats in addressing crime. In a September 15-19 NBC News poll of 1,000 registered voters, 46% of them responded that the Republicans are better at dealing with crime versus just 20% preferring the Democrats on this issue. Of course, much might change a year from now when voters cast their ballots.
In what follows, I trace out the contours of voter impressions about crime. Facts are important, but perhaps perceptions are even more decisive for voters. And, like so much else in our polarized society, what voters think depends on which party they support.
The most comprehensive national crime data for a given year are published in the Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and the Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics Criminal Victimization Report (CVR). (Note: The UCR data are from police department reports. The CVR data are obtained annually from a nationally representative sample of about 240,000 persons in about 150,000 households. Persons are interviewed on the frequency, characteristics, and consequences of criminal victimization in the United States.) These data for 2022 recently became public on September 14 (CVR) and on October 16 (UCR).
The reports provide talking points for both political parties. Democrats can cite from the UCR report a 1.7% decline in overall violent crimes reported to the police including a 6.1% drop in murder and non-negligent manslaughter. Republicans undoubtedly will emphasize from the separate CVR report a jump in the violent victimization rate per 1000 persons aged 12 and older to 23.5 per person versus 16.5 per person in 2021.
Both reports, though, indicated a jump in property crime rates. In the UCR report, there was a 7.1% increase in property crime including a 10.9% rise in motor vehicle theft. In the separate CVR data, property crime rose 12.5% and motor vehicle theft surged 27.9%.
The FBI also reports more timely but less comprehensive and less widely publicized quarterly UCR data for some individual cities. Utilizing this data as well as other local sources, the Council on Criminal Justice on July 20 reported that in the first half of 2023 the overall murder rate fell 9.4% versus the comparable year earlier period for 30 cities, but motor vehicle thefts in 32 cities jumped 33.5%.
Politicians will selectively “spin” these data to suit their purposes. But does this information indicate an alarming “crime wave”?
In a word, no. Crime remains much lower than in past decades. The 2022 violent UCR crime rate of 381 per 100,000 persons was still well under the 494 per 100,000 twenty years earlier and 758 per 100,000 persons thirty years earlier in 1992. The CVR violent crime victimization rate of 23.5 per 1000 persons aged 12 and older in 2022 also was well below the 32.1 per 1000 persons twenty years earlier and the 79.8 per 1000 persons twenty-nine years earlier in 1993. And the 1,214,000 in reported auto thefts in 2022 was very much under the 2,023,000 thefts twenty years ago and the 2,904,000 thefts thirty years earlier.
However, while Democrats are correct when claiming that crime is relatively low, the Republicans will find fodder in some of the most visible and well publicized recent crime trends, such as shoplifting. The UCR reports that in 2022 the number of overall larceny offenses jumped 37.6% to 4,339,713. According to the latest annual National Retail Federation (NRF) Retail Security Survey, retailers’ 2022-dollar losses from “shrink”, which includes theft plus inventory process controls failures and errors, rose 19.4% to $112.1 billion. Also, for 2022 67% of respondents reported even more violence and aggression from organized retail crime perpetrators than in 2021. In response, 45% of respondents reduced operating hours in some locations, 30% reported reducing/altering the availability of products in stores and 28% reported closing some locations. To be sure, some of these estimates have been publicly challenged. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny that voters throughout the country are being regularly reminded of much heightened shoplifting threats when they visit local drugstores and see ubiquitous plexiglass fronted shelves with locks.
Looking ahead to the 2024 election year there could still be a considerable number of regularly publicized “smash and grab” shoplifting and auto theft robberies throughout the country. From the standpoint of criminals, the odds of being apprehended for property crimes have been falling. According to FBI data, the national clearance rate for property crimes in 2022 was 11.1% versus 14.4% in 2020 and 19.4% in 2015. Moreover, rapid goods inflation has made property crimes like shoplifting more profitable. For instance, in 2022 core (nonfood, nonenergy) consumer goods prices were 13.1% higher than two years earlier.
Also in 2024, another crime-related political wildcard might be a high incidence of mass shootings. According to Gun Violence Archive, in 2023 through mid-September in the US there already were 506 mass shooting incidents where at least four people, not including the shooter, were killed, or injured. For all of 2022 there were 645 such incidents versus 610 in the 2020 election year and 383 in the 2016 election year. In a recent Pew Research Center June 2023 poll, 60% of US adults thought gun violence was a “very big” national problem versus 53% registering that response five years ago in 2018. (In this year’s survey, 81% of Democrats versus 38% of Republicans registered this response.) About a third (32%) of parents with K-12 students say they are very or extremely worried about a shooting ever happening at their children’s school, according to a Fall 2022 Pew Center survey. As for remedies, in the June 2023 survey 58% of all respondents favored stricter gun laws versus only 28% of Republicans.
In sum, if the recent past is any guide, a year from now when voters head for the polls, reported national crime data will provide Republicans and Democrats with many talking points. How the voting public ultimately decides which party will be best on fighting crime could reflect the realities and perceptions of gun violence alongside publicized store and auto theft.