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Stories about crime are rife with misinformation and racism, critics say

Americans are being inundated with messaging about a surge in crime rates. But the reality is more complicated.
Tillsonburg/Getty Images
Americans are being inundated with messaging about a surge in crime rates. But the reality is more complicated.

The specter of rising crime has become a central point of the 2022 midterm elections. It's been on heavy rotation in Republican campaign ads, and nightly it's the topic de jour on Fox News. Even much of the mainstream media is covering crime as though the country is in the middle of some kind of crisis, defacto accepting the political narrative — especially, but not exclusively, the Republican narrative.

But is there actually a crime wave? Turns out the answer is deeply complicated. So is the question.

Start with the FBI crime stats from 2021, "the big takeaways were crime is up on some measures and it's down on others," says Insha Rahman of the Vera Institute of Justice.

In broad strokes — up on homicides, down on property crimes — similar to 2020. But those numbers come with a giant asterisk. Because of a long-planned change in reporting standards, most cities did not report their 2021 crime numbers to the FBI.

"It's turned our crime data into this sort of giant black hole I don't think we'll ever actually be able to undo," according to John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University. "I think 2021 will always just be a giant gap in our narrative."

Even when we have more complete data, the stories we tell about crime are filled with holes that misinformation can crawl into and take up residence.

"A big mistake we make with crime narratives is the effort to tell a narrative," Pfaff says. "Crime is deeply local."

Telling a single story of crime will always result in a Frankenstein, he says, because it requires grafting together multiple stories, often with very different arcs.

Pfaff points to 2020, when there was an "unambiguous nationwide increase in homicides."

"There's no denying that, but what's interesting is that if you look at it sort of city by city, the patterns by which it happens vary," Pfaff says.

Another problem? Too often we base the story of rising crime on increments of time that are statistically meaningless.

"Both journalists and elected officials have a habit of comparing crime today to crime last year," says Robert Vargas, a sociologist at the University of Chicago.

Even looking across a few years only gives us a hastily taken snapshot that's out of focus and badly framed.

"There's absolutely no systemic or scientifically informed way of thinking about crime trends" in this short term way, Vargas says.

Which is why, when it comes to crime, it's imperative to take the long view, says Rena Karefa-Johnson, with the advocacy group Fwd.Us.

"It is often lost that there are certain crimes like property crimes that are actually at historic lows," she says. "For the crimes like gun homicide that have increased and spiked and that we really need to focus on, we're still not talking about rates anywhere near the historic highs of the nineties."

"People were 80% less likely to be a victim of violent crime in 2021 compared to 1993," she says.

What is rising, unhinged from the complex facts on the ground, is the frenzied narrative around rising crime.

What we mean when we talk about crime

To really understand how we count crime, it is imperative to understand what crimes count.

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

That's murder, robbery, rape, aggravated assault, larceny, burglary, auto theft, and arson. Over a century ago, those crimes were selected by a group of police chiefs to develop a system of uniform crime statistics. Other than the addition of arson in 1979, the list remains unchanged.

"I don't think crime data tells you all that much," says Vargas. "It tells you how police behave as an organization."

In this system, shoplifting tampons or diapers counts as crime, but tax evasion, environmental crimes, and wage theft do not. Police aren't even responsible for investigating those crimes.

"Wage theft is a problem about five times the magnitude of shoplifting," says Alec Karakatsanis, an activist, lawyer and executive director of Civil Rights Corps.

"Wage theft is when companies steal money from usually low-income workers," he explains. Estimates are that this kind of theft costs workers $50 billion a year. In the past decade the estimated cost of tax fraud has risen to $1 trillion a year — most of it stolen by the wealthy and corporations.

The way the system is set up perpetrators of what we call crime are more likely to be poor people, because that's how crime is defined.

The data is biased in another way too, Vargas says, by who police choose to target as criminals.

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

Numerous studies have shown that Black and brown people are policed and arrested at much higher levels than white people.

"If you are a teenager who gets in a physical fight and you're Black in a public school in New York, that's crime," says Karefa-Johnson.

"You get arrested by the police, you get taken into criminal court and you're charged with assault," she says. But when white teenagers get into a fight, "specifically white children who go to private schools or go to schools in more affluent areas where there are no police in the classroom, it's not something that we see thought about as a crime."

Karefa-Johnson says our understanding of crime is constructed by choices - choices to not include white collar crime, choices to target poor people of color - made by those in power.

"Crime is very much a social construct," she says. "I know it can be made to feel like something that is more objective or something that is more long-standing, a category that has its own gravitas. But it's very much a reflection of who's in power, of the way that society is ordered and that the way we want to keep it ordered."

Crime is a story that we are told, and the people who write the first draft of that story, down to defining the language, are the police.

The politics of police

"A lot of the big police departments have really big media departments," Pfaff says. "They have press information officers that are out there really trying to structure the narrative."

Police are political actors, not reliable narrators.

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

Karakatsanis points out another set of crimes that doesn't make it into police stats: "crimes committed by police themselves."

Police unions are deeply political entities, most often found lobbying against criminal justice reform, progressive prosecutors and for Republicans, like their support for former President Donald Trump.

That's playing out across the country right now. In the Wisconsin senate race the Fraternal Order of Police, alongside a majority of Sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies, have thrown their political weight behind the incumbent, "tough-on-crime" Republican Ron Johnson. Johnson has also called the criminal Jan. 6th attack on the Capitol "a peaceful protest."

In 2021, he told conservative talk show host Joe Pag, "I knew those were people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law." He added that had they been "Black Lives Matter and Antifa protesters, I might have been a little concerned."

Unlike the insurrection, the Black Lives Matter racial justice protests of the summer of 2020 were mostly peaceful. The response to them by police was not.

The ad game

That same brand of thinly veiled racism in Johnson's comments about Black Lives Matter was on display in campaign ads against his Democratic challenger, Mandela Barnes. In one, paid for by the Senate Leadership Fund, a narrator asks the viewer, "do you feel safe?' while ominous music thumps in the background.

"Mandela Barnes would eliminate cash bail, setting accused criminals free into the community before trial, 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. Mandela Barnes, he stands with them, not us."

The not so subtle suggestion being that Barnes, who is Black, stands with the images of the alleged criminals in the ad, all of whom are also Black.

The ad not only attacks Barnes, but also bail reform. It's been a popular target of the right, in lockstep with police, claiming that it will let violent suspects — almost always depicted as Black and brown — out onto the street. That's despite a lack of evidence that shows a connection between bail reform and increased crime.

"This is like climate science denial, right?" Karakatsanis says.

"We know from the actual evidence the things that determine the level of crime or violence or harm in a society are bigger structural factors." He lists off some examples — poverty and inequality, early childhood education, and access to mental health care.

Still in places such as Wisconsin, ads that push the narrative of a crime wave have been working, says the Vera Institute for Justice's Insha Rahman.

"When those narratives go unchecked, because there's huge amounts of money and private interests behind these ads, they are incredibly potent and powerful," she says. "They have a real impact on what happens in our elections because they play to people's emotions and perceptions and fears."

Crime is, for many people, a metaphor for deeper fears, says law professor John Pfaff.

"We use crime as a shorthand for fear of other people, especially people of color," he says. "We use it as a proxy for deeper racial fears that white people don't feel comfortable expressing."

Republicans continue to be seen by many voters as better on crime, Rahman says, even when people know their "tough on crime" solutions have repeatedly proven unsuccessful. "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."

Democrats, she says, have failed to give any alternative for what safety could look like. Just examine the accusation — like the one falsely made against Mandela Barnes — that Democrats want to "defund the police." Rahman says most Democrats go on the defensive by saying, "No, no, I wanna fund the police."

"Turns out, 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."

People are looking for a different, more complex vision for safety, Rahman says, they just aren't finding it.

Perhaps the groups most desperate for real policies that lead to safety are those who are most impacted by violent crime, especially homicide — which spiked in 2020 and has remained high in some places, says Rena Karefa-Johnson. The largest increase in murders in 2020 were actually in Republican-led states and cities.

But all this messaging around crime is not meant for those who bare its brunt, Karefa-Johnson says.

"The communities that are most uniquely harmed by gun violence," she says, "are also the communities that are most uniquely harmed by long sentences, by pretrial detention, by draconian approaches to criminal justice reform."

Backlash

We've seen these crime wave narratives crest before.

In the mid-1960s and '70s we saw the emergence of the "tough on crime" lexicon, the language that accompanies the politics of "law and order" — describing a surge of crime, riots and lawlessness rampant in "dangerous" cities — especially, of course, presumed lawlessness in Black neighborhoods.

That was the dawn of a certain kind of American war: The war on crime, the war on drugs, the revival of the death penalty, felon disenfranchisement statutes, and the start of a still ongoing project of mass incarceration.

What was going on in those "lawless" cities across the United States? Riots that, like Watts in 1965, have come to be understood by many scholars and activists as uprisings against police violence, racism, and oppression. In the South there were nonviolent protests led by Black freedom fighters, although there was violence there too, coming from the police's side.

It was "the largest civil rights protests this country had ever seen," says Rahman. Until the protests that swept across the country in the summer of 2020.

"We are seeing that same kind of backlash of weaponizing issues of crime and safety today," she says.

"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," says Karakatsanis.

Moral panics are a 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 have been, Karakatsanis says, because while the Republican Party is running on a moral panic about crime, they are also openly anti-democratic.

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

And in response to the rising threat of fascism, both Republicans and Democrats are calling for more police.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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.