Is this a good trend? "Murder is up again in 2017, but not as much as last year," proclaims the headline over a story in fivethirtyeight.com.
I suppose it's always good news that the number of murders hasn't risen as much as it could. But many readers will take the headline as a suggestion that we ought to take some solace from the fact that the number of murders is not rising as fast this year as it did in 2015 and 2016. That would be in line with what I see as a tendency of the good folks at fivethirtyeight.com to downplay increases in the number and rates of murder.
I first pointed this out in September 2015, in response to an article by Carl Bialik headlined "Scare headlines exaggerated the U.S. crime wave." After painstakingly examining murder statistics for the nation's 60 largest municipalities, with appropriate caveats, Bialik wrote, "The results confirm that there has been an increase in homicides this year in big U.S. cities of about 16 percent. But that doesn't come close to reversing the long-term decline in homicides. And it's a less dire picture than the one painted by reports in several large media outlets, which generally highlighted those cities that have suffered the biggest increase in homicides."
Less dire? A 16 percent increase in the number of murders is huge. My own later research indicated it's the largest one-year percentage increase in the last 50 years. Bialik seems to be writing in response to the Manhattan Institute's Heather Mac Donald who documented and named the "Ferguson Effect." She argued that the meme promoted by mainstream media, Barack Obama, and Eric Holder, that police are slaughtering innocent black males, has affected police behavior in a way that has resulted in a substantial increase in murders. Bialik's response seemed to be, as I argued in January, April and May 2016: Hey, it's only 16 percent; move on, there's nothing to see here.
The fivethirtyeight.com article this week, by Jeff Asher (Bialik left 538 for Yelp earlier this year), partakes less of this tone. Asher carefully presents the incompleteness of statistics for the current year and makes the additional points that the number of murders tends to rise in the second half of a calendar year, presumably for the simple reason that the weather tends to be warmer. He notes that murder rates remain low by historic standards, at approximately the same level as the early 1960s (I believe they may have been even lower in the 1950s and 1940s) and well below the horrific levels of 1970 to 1994.
Asher ends the article with this somber paragraph: "Ultimately, this year's trend is similar to last year's in that more big cities are seeing a rise in the number of murders than are seeing a decline. There are still six months left in 2017, and while anything could happen, the most likely outcome is that — although this year's rise will likely be smaller than last year's — the country will see murders increase for a third straight year." In other words, the Ferguson Effect is still operative. I'll end with the last paragraph in my own May 2016 blog post: "Black Americans were the primary victims of the huge crime increase starting in the late 1960s, and they will be the primary victims again if the Ferguson Effect continues to result in more homicides. Can't we prevent this awful history from repeating itself?"