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“What’s Dangerous Is America’s Lack of Crime Data”


The title of this post is the headline of this new opinion piece by Matthew Yglesias.  I recommend the full piece and here are excerpts:

Crime is on the political agenda in a big way this year, with Republicans zeroing in on it as their favorite topic now that gasoline prices are moderating.  Which naturally raises the question: Is crime rising?  To which the shocking answer is — nobody knows.  Not because anything unusual is happening, but simply because the usual state of America’s information on crime and policing is incredibly poor.

Contrast this state of affairs with the amount of data available on the US economy.  There are monthly updates on job creation, the unemployment rate and multiple indexes of inflation.  Commodity prices are publicized on a daily basis. Reports on gross national product come out quarterly, with timely revisions as more data comes in.  Policymakers benefit from a deeply informed debate, enriched by commentary from academics and other observers.

But on crime the US is, to a shocking extent, flying blind.  As a July report from the Brennan Center for Justice noted: “More than six months into 2022, national-level data on crime in 2021 remains unavailable.”…

The dearth of information is a problem not only for rigor-minded policymakers.  It also leaves the political arena open for manipulation by demagogues.  Since nobody actually knows in real time what’s happening, anecdotes can just stand in for made-up fears.  Since the very real murder surge of 2020 now has people primed to believe “crime is out of control” narratives, any particular instance of violence can be used to support that story….

By the same token, when murder really was soaring in 2020, it was easy for progressives to stay in ideologically convenient denial for far too long, since it was genuinely impossible to actually prove that it was happening until much later.  The people who dismissed the anecdotal evidence of rising crime were, in that case, mistaken. But the Republicans who are stoking fears of rising crime right now also appear to be mistaken.  And the lack of information about geographical patterns in murder trends means no one has much ability to assess what social or policy factors may be in play.

What makes this all especially maddening is that collecting this information in a timely manner shouldn’t be that difficult. Police departments know how many murders are committed in their jurisdiction. That information is stored on computers. It doesn’t need to be delivered to the Department of Justice via carrier pigeon. The DOJ should be given some money to create a system that can be easily updated by law enforcement agencies, and actually filing that information in a timely way should be a condition of receiving federal police grants.  A small team at the Bureau of Justice Statistics could have the job of phoning up departments who haven’t done it and “reminding” them to update the numbers.  And then the data could be released on a regular basis in a machine-readable form — the same way numbers for jobs, inflation, and other major economic statistics are.

Knowing what’s actually happening would not, by itself, solve America’s crime problems.  But successful efforts to reduce violence, such as the one in New York City in the 1990s, were driven by a commitment to rigorous measurement.  A serious federal investment in crime data collection is no panacea, and it’s not exactly a winning political slogan.  But it would be a huge boost to all kinds of crime-control efforts.



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