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Rising crime statistics are not all that they seem

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Talk with voters this fall, and it won't take long for someone to mention crime. It is a problem that people feel. Republicans, in their media, have played up the threat of crime during this election season, but what do the numbers really show? NPR's Sandhya Dirks reports.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Is crime really rising? Turns out that question is incredibly complicated. So is the answer. Take the FBI crime statistics for 2021 - at first glance, up on homicides, down on property crimes, similar to 2020. But because of a long-planned change in reporting standards, most cities didn't report their 2021 crime numbers to the FBI, says Fordham law professor John Pfaff.

JOHN PFAFF: It's turned our crime data into just sort of a giant black hole.

DIRKS: The stories we tell about crime are filled with holes, rife with misinformation, Pfaff says - even when we have more complete data.

PFAFF: The other, I think, big mistake we make with crime narratives is the effort to tell a narrative, right? Crime is deeply local.

DIRKS: While it sometimes feels like crime is rising everywhere, that's just not how it works. And it's important to take the long view. Property crime is near historic lows. There was a significant spike in homicides in 2020, but it's still nothing like back in the '90s. There's another really important question - what do we even mean by crime?

PFAFF: We generally talk about - crime is up or crime is down. It's referring to sort of this small core set of what the FBI calls index one crimes.

DIRKS: That's murder, robbery, rape, aggravated assault, larceny, burglary and auto theft.

PFAFF: Sometimes arson, sometimes not.

DIRKS: Pfaff says, look, many of these are serious, significant crimes. But that list was chosen by a group of police chiefs almost 100 years ago, and it hasn't changed since.

ROBERT VARGAS: I don't think crime data actually tells you all that much.

DIRKS: That's University of Chicago sociologist Robert Vargas. He says the way crime is defined is biased from the start.

VARGAS: I mean, it tells you how police behave as an organization.

DIRKS: Someone shoplifting tampons or diapers from a pharmacy counts as a crime. But a corporation stealing millions of their workers' wages doesn't. Tax evasion doesn't. Big companies committing environmental crimes? Nope - because those aren't investigated by traditional police. In our system, perpetrators of what we call crime are more likely to be poor people - not because poor people commit more crimes or hurt more people - they don't - but because that's how crime is defined. It's not just which crimes count and which don't, Vargas says. It's also who police target.

VARGAS: They're going after people selling drugs, people committing traffic violations, oftentimes in poor neighborhoods - poor Black and brown neighborhoods and not other neighborhoods.

DIRKS: Black and brown people are policed and arrested at much higher levels than white people, says Rena Karefa-Johnson with the advocacy group Forward U.S.

RENA KAREFA-JOHNSON: If you are a young Black kid who goes to school in a big city, where there are police at your school - if you get in a physical fight with another student, that is often seen as a crime.

DIRKS: But if you're a white kid at a more affluent or private school, where there aren't police, and you get into a fight...

KAREFA-JOHNSON: It's not something that we see thought about as a crime.

DIRKS: So when we turn on the nightly news, we're hearing a very slanted story about crime, says Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights lawyer and activist.

ALEC KARAKATSANIS: When people talk about a crime wave, they're basing that on very distorted set of data the police themselves are manipulating and curating for their own political reasons.

DIRKS: Take Wisconsin, where the Fraternal Order of Police, among other law enforcement agencies, have endorsed Republican Senator Ron Johnson for re-election. Johnson is running as tough on crime, but he's also called the criminal January 6 attack on the Capitol a peaceful protest by people who love this country. He has said he would have been concerned had they been Black Lives Matter protesters instead. Republicans are pushing the narrative of a crime wave in ads like this one, falsely attacking Johnson's opponent, Mandela Barnes.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Even with shootings, robberies, carjackings, violent attacks on our police, more than 300 murders last year alone - yet Barnes has even supported defunding the police.

DIRKS: Barnes is Black, like all of the alleged criminals depicted in the ad.

INSHA RAHMAN: There's huge amounts of money and private interests behind these ads...

DIRKS: That's Insha Rahman with the Vera Institute.

RAHMAN: ...And they have real impact on what happens in our elections.

DIRKS: Rahman says people confuse crime with not feeling safe. Worry about crime is often a code for white racial anxiety. Rahman says Republicans continue to be seen by many voters as better on crime, even when people know their tough-on-crime solutions have repeatedly proven unsuccessful.

RAHMAN: But when it's the only option on offer, it's what people go to because, in the absence of a proactive affirmative vision for safety, you pick the thing that you know, even if you know it doesn't really work.

DIRKS: Democrats, she says, have failed to give any alternative for what safety could look like. Take the defund the police accusation, like the one against Mandela Barnes. Most Democrats respond by saying...

RAHMAN: No, no. I want to fund the police more. I support the police. At least from the polling, that's not a very effective tactic, but that's the only response that we are seeing to those attacks.

DIRKS: This messaging around crime - it scares people, but it doesn't really offer solutions, says Rena Karefa-Johnson, because it isn't meant for the people most impacted by the crime that is rising - homicide.

KAREFA-JOHNSON: The communities that are most uniquely harmed by gun violence are also the communities that are most uniquely harmed by long sentences, by pretrial detention, by draconian approaches to criminal justice reform.

DIRKS: She says these crime wave narratives are part of a historical pattern - after racial and social justice protests comes a backlash. Here's civil rights lawyer Alec Karakatsanis.

KARAKATSANIS: It's very important for powerful people, especially in moments of uprising and moments of social unrest, to attempt to create a moral panic around crime.

DIRKS: Moral panics are way of pushing back against change or reform - a way of preserving the status quo. But this time, it isn't about keeping things the way they've been, Karakatsanis says, because, while the Republican Party is running on a moral panic about crime, they're also openly anti-democratic.

KARAKATSANIS: The reactionary backlash against the protests of 2020 is coming at a time when this country is hurtling fast toward fascist and authoritarian life.

DIRKS: And in response, both Republicans and Democrats are calling for more police. So Karakatsanis says the question isn't, is crime really rising? Instead, we should be asking, what really makes us safe?

I'm Sandhya Dirks, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.