Violence is up in America. What does it mean?
Yesterday, the FBI announced preliminary crime statistics for 2012 as reported by local police agencies. After five years of large declines in violence—and a more than two-decade trend toward less violence—the number of violent crimes were up slightly.
The FBI reports that, “[i]n 2012, the violent crime offenses of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter increased 1.5 percent from the 2011 figures, aggravated assault increased 1.7 percent, and robbery increased 0.6 percent. Forcible rape offenses declined 0.3 percent.” Once the data are adjusted for population growth, the overall change from year to year is even smaller: less than one percentage point
By itself, this might not be too troubling. But this follows last year’s announcement from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that national survey data showed an even bigger jump in violence—17 percent. (It should be noted that violence is very rare, so while it’s a large increase percentage-wise, in real numbers, the increase was from 3.3 violent victimizations per 1,000 to 4.3 per 1,000. Those numbers are very similar to the FBI data, which shows 3.8 violent victimizations per 1,000).
So, what are we to make of this increase? After more than two decades of declines, is violence making a comeback? Does this mean that we’re returning to the 1980s, when rampant violence was consistently listed among the nation’s most important problems?
Probably not. If you fit a line into very long-term trends, what you see is that in the last couple of years, violence declined below the expected rate predicted by the trend line.
If you fit a trend line from 1980 when homicide peaked, 2012 is still well below long-term trends. (If you were to fit a line beginning in 1990, today’s violence would be well above the trend line simply due to greater declines in violence in the 1990s than since 2000, which provides little insight into the meaning of the current increase.)
Crime trends, and especially trends in violence, are notoriously hard to predict. Subtle changes in weather, consumer behavior, policing, and numerous other factors can all cause short-term fluctuations around the long-term averages. The key is this: if violent crime continues to increase at the rate that it did from 2011 to 2012, it will still be many years before violent crime rates cross above the long-term downward trend.
While 2012 does not appear to have been a particularly good year in our fight to reduce violence, it does not send a strong signal that darker days are coming.