Crime and Misperception - BCB #3
"If they seem crazy, it's time to ask why"
This issue we take up perceptions and misperceptions of crime, because arguments over basic facts are getting in the way of solutions. Plus, polarization in response to the January 6 hearings, weaponized ideology in the Blue nonprofit sector, a different approach to school shootings, and proposals to reform polarizing primary elections.
Crime and Politics
There is currently an argument about whether or not crime has increased in the U.S. We’re disappointed, but not surprised – disagreement about basic facts is a typical feature of unhealthy conflict. There is, after all, a lot at stake. Whether or not you think crime is a problem is probably deeply entangled with your position on policing, race, homelessness, gun control, incarceration, and so on.
As usual, our approach is to complicate things. “Has crime increased?” is not a well-formed question without specifying what type of crime, where, and over what period. Even then, it’s not as simple as “following the data”; we must also consider where the data came from, as well as the wildly different definitions used.
With this in mind: over the past two years there has been a notable uptick in violent crime (but a fall in property crime) in most major cities and many rural areas too. While at least 10 cities suffered highest ever homicide rates in 2021, national averages are still near historic lows. Because the causes of crime are wide-ranging and specific to each place, so too are the proposed solutions. We’ve tried to highlight a few voices that refuse to simplify. But first…
News News News
Polarization Is Happening Now
The January 6 hearings are increasing the distance between Red and Blue. Since April, the net favorability of “MAGA republicans” has fallen 17 points among independents, but has increased 8 points among registered Republicans. There is often a tension between peace and justice, and here it is in real-time. We’re not saying the J6 hearings are a bad idea, but we’re not saying they’re a good idea either. One classic third way is amnesty in exchange for the truth, as was done in South Africa, Rwanda, and elsewhere. This is also an ancient religious tradition.
The Dysfunction that Dare Not Speak Its Name
This is an extended report on infighting within Blue non-profit and advocacy organizations. The destructive potential of identity politics has brought mockery from Red but little more than hushed voices from Blue. As one leader in the space put it, “the toxic dynamic of whatever you want to call it — callout culture, cancel culture, whatever — is creating this really intense thing, and no one is able to acknowledge it, no one’s able to talk about it, no one’s able to say how bad it is.” We view this as a study in how well-intended ideas can be weaponized. A Most Conflicted Selection.
Changing Thinking on School Shootings
A group founded by parents of children slain at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 seeks to stop school shootings by concentrating on positive classroom culture and encouraging children to communicate with trusted adults when another student seems to be contemplating violence. Programs like this seek to empower students and teachers while avoiding political battles over gun control. Does it work? This is an incredibly hard question to answer even in retrospect because school shootings are thankfully very rare, but preliminary research suggests that students in the program are at least more likely to report correlated warning signs.
This piece argues that our current structure of primary elections is part of the problem, because only the most engaged (meaning extreme) voters participate. The primary system was created in the early 20th century to allow citizens, rather than party bosses, decide who runs, and has been largely unchanged since. Yet there seems to be a renewed appetite for reforms. Several states now allow voters to choose candidates from any party or no party at all, regardless of how they’ve registered to vote. Alaska is trying out ranked choice voting for its congressional election this year, which may reduce the incentive to vote for a more extreme candidate.
In Depth: Perceptions and Misperceptions of Crime
Crime in Context - Gabriel Dance
The answer to “is crime up?” is always “it depends.” This is a clever interactive exploration of data for five different types of crimes across 68 cities from 1975 to 2015, showing that it’s always possible to tell the story that “crime is up” or “crime is down” by choosing the right context. Further, the FBI database behind the numbers depends on voluntary reports from local police stations and the data isn’t necessarily consistent from place to place or year to year. No wonder we disagree – we’re probably not even talking about the same thing.
Violent Crime in the U.S. Is Surging. But We Know What to Do About It – Thomas Abt, Eddie Bocanegra, Emada Tingrides
This is what taking violent crime reduction seriously looks like, beyond simplistically arguing that the police are either the problem or the solution. The core idea is that we need both increased police presence and more supportive, community-driven approaches: “a double message of empathy and accountability.” This is a remarkably bipartisan approach, even if the framing around gun control shades Blue. Truly thoughtful, and backed up with lots of citations to case studies and other research.
The Great Shoplifting Freak-Out– Amanda Mull
You’ve probably heard that there's a national spate of shoplifting, but is this true? Perhaps you’ve seen videos of smash-and-grabs on your social media feeds and reached for a bottle of shaving cream only to find it locked in a case like rare and precious art. But those are anecdotes, and it turns out to be frustratingly difficult to pin down any actual numbers. This piece goes deep into the issue of what’s reported and how, a maddening patchwork of disparate definitions and incomplete data. Of course, this indeterminacy just fuels the conflict.
Violence, the Economy and Housing Top the List of Important Community Issues for Black Americans – Pew Research Center
When asked an open-ended question about their biggest concerns in their community, Black respondents most often listed “violence,” “crime,” or named a specific form of criminal activity such as theft. We include this survey to remind everyone that crime tends to hit communities of color the hardest, and to question the stereotype that Black Americans want fewer police on the streets.
Quote of the Week
“This us versus them dynamic is profoundly destructive to sound anti-violence efforts because everything we know about violence reduction tells us that we need law enforcement, but we need community and other partners as well. And most importantly, we know that a single approach won’t work—we need everybody to work together.”
-Thomas Abt, Eddie Bocanegra, and Emada Tingirides
Thanks for reading!
Mary-Beth Ellis - reporter
Jonathan Stray - editor