Trump says inner-city crimes are going up. He’s wrong.

A homeless man sits on a sidewalk in Philadelphia Sept. 26. (CNS photo/CJ Gunther, EPA)

Attempted murder, the police officer told me. That would be the charge if the two men were caught. “We probably won’t catch them,” he admitted, “but if we do, that’s what we’ll put on them.” I was surprised; it was, I said, more a mugging than anything else. “Did they have a gun?” he asked. Yes. “Did they say they were going to use it on you?” Yes. “That’s textbook attempted murder.”

This all happened two decades ago, but of course I remember every detail, in part because the officer’s words made me realize the gravity of the situation. Getting mugged was no big deal in West Philly in 1997, but the possibility that I could have lost my life over $24—that was something else.

A brief recap: I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, living a few blocks west of the school. On the evening in question, I was walking down Spruce Street toward campus, thinking about anything but my walk. My uncle had died the night before, and I was on my way to return an overdue book—The Raw And The Cooked, by Claude Levi-Strauss—to the library before I headed to New York the next morning for the funeral. For once, I let my guard down.

At 42nd Street, I heard footsteps crunching in the heavy snow. I turned halfway around before I was hit with a forearm shiver. I went down hard—I remember hearing the knee of my jeans tear out on the curb as I hit the ground. Two men were on top of me immediately, one clouting me in the head, the other straddling my back, jamming a pistol against my ribs, demanding my wallet. “How much do you have, how much is in there?” Only 20 dollars or so, I guessed. “Then you’re going to die tonight,” the fellow with the gun told me.

America’s urban centers are now often safer than their suburban or exurban satellites.

Once they got the cash, they were gone; they even threw my wallet back at me as they ran (something I was pathetically grateful for at the time). The cops tried mightily in the aftermath to help me identify suspects, but in the end I just became another bump in a shocking statistic: unsolved violent crimes in Philadelphia in 1997.

Stories and experiences like this can make people fear urban centers in the United States, and in the 1990s they were common enough. They also explain why politicians like President Donald J. Trump can get such political traction out of depicting our cities as urban badlands. Just last month, Mr. Trump said: “Here in Philadelphia, murder has been steady—I mean—just terribly increasing.”

But this is not true, in Philadelphia or elsewhere. Almost all major cities in the United States have experienced major decreases in violent crime over the past 25 years. In 1996 and 1997, when I lived in Philadelphia, the city suffered over 400 murders a year; last year there were only 277. Overall reported crime in the city is at a three-decade low. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that New York City experienced its lowest recorded level of major crimes ever in 2016. Across the nation, the rates of violent crime are down 28 percent from their 1990s high. In urban centers, the rates of violent crime are down almost twice that rate.

While Rudolph Giuliani and others will claim this drop is because we “got tough on crime” in the 1990s and 2000s, that self-serving claim does not hold true in other cities. Longtime Philadelphia residents will remember Frank Rizzo, the legendary police commissioner (and later mayor) who used to wear a billy club in his cummerbund at formal events. There is a statue of him outside the Municipal Services Building; there is a huge mural of him in South Philadelphia. Except the famous Rizzo, notorious for his hardline approach, presided over decades of insane violence in the city. Only under his more nuanced successors did Philly experience huge drops in crime.

The reality is that America’s urban centers are now often safer than their suburban or exurban satellites. While sometimes this is the result of painful gentrification, that is not the only reason. Often the combination of jobs, cops, stores, transportation alternatives, affordable housing and community institutions offered by our cities cannot be matched in the suburbs, and those realities all add up to safer neighborhoods. Just ask Jane Jacobs.

It is troubling, then, to consider the intent of statements like “Inner-city crime is reaching record levels” (also Mr. Trump; also false). Are they off-the-cuff remarks? Important clarion calls to rally public and private institutions to help beleaguered neighborhoods that deserve better? Or are they meant to inspire fear of our cities and disgust for their residents?

To put it another way: Are we being encouraged to fix our cities, or to flee them?

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Derrick Weiller
3 years 11 months ago

It is not that Trump "is wrong". It is that Trump is a pathological liar whose sole measure of an assertion's "truth" is that of how favorable a light it casts upon him.

Ryder Charles
3 years 11 months ago

Mr. Keane failed to mention the homicide rates in Chicago and other cities. The murder rate in Chicago went from 480 in 2015 to 762 in 2016. Homicide rates are raging in our inner-cities. That the overall crime rate may be decreasing offers little solace to the families whose loved ones have been murdered.

"Chicago marked 2016 as the deadliest year in nearly two decades, data released by the Chicago Police Department shows. The city saw a surge in gun violence in 2016: 762 murders, 3,550 shooting incidents, and 4,331 shooting victims, according to a statement released by the department on Sunday. There were 480 murders in 2015, the most in the city since 1997."

In Baltimore , "The total of 318 killings by year's end made 2016 the second-deadliest year per capita on record, second only to 2015, when violence spiked after the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray."

While overall crime was down in Detroit, murder increased. "Carjackings, robberies and non-fatal shootings dropped in Detroit in 2016, while the number of homicides in the city edged up by seven, according to figures from the police department."

John Linton
3 years 11 months ago

I find this borderline morally obtuse.

The question is not the baseline for crime against 25 years ago but the baseline against 2-3 years ago, since the intense identity politics of Black Lives Matter started. Further, the curve needs to focus specifically on murder and not all "violent crime".

The point is not to single out one racial group in any way shape or form but to acknowledge the dramatic uptick in homicide in 10 of the country's urban centers in the past 2-3 years. This is because the 1000s of new lives being lost are unacceptable.

Look, I think it's fine if you want to make a Fourth Amendment argument against stop-and-frisk and broken-windows policing, but it is unbelievably obtuse to pretend like only a demagogue or a racist could be concerned with the noxious effects of identity politics run askew.

Put simply, the radius of outrage over (statistically rare) unjustified police shootings has far outpaced the radius of outrage over a level of crime that is responsible for exponentially more loss of life.

I'm not a fan of the alt-Right in many other ways but I do believe their term "virtue-signalling" is of use here. It's more important to many of today's social justice warrior liberals to appear not to be racist than to save as many lives as humanly possible.

Meanwhile, the ACLU-type arguments against broken-windows policing (which worked so well in New York) utterly neglect the de facto police state that exists when the murder rate is high enough -- and law-abiding citizens cannot go outside or move about freely.

Chuck Kotlarz
3 years 11 months ago

In 2014, right-to-work states had thirty per cent more homicides than non-r-t-w states (8298 vs. 6393).

Tom Fields
3 years 11 months ago

I am amazed at the focus on Trump. Has anyone spent a night in inner cities---Chicago--Oakland--Bronx, NY--and many more? We are in trouble. Chicago has one of the highest High School drop out rates in the Country---plus a very high unemployment rate among young black males---and a very high shootings/killings rate! In many places the highest cause of death among young black males is homicide---the vast majority of which are committed by other young black males. There is an huge rate of out-of-wedlock birth rates---leaving few positive male role models. A police officer is far more likely to be killed by a young black male than the other way around (see Jason Riley's book--and research). Why did all this go on under Obama? Trump has been in office a very short time! Parsing his statements is counter-productive!. What can the Catholic Church do?--refocus on marriage---help with education---use educated Catholic volunteers--to help in schools---pray!

Chuck Kotlarz
3 years 11 months ago

In 2016, right-to-work states had seventy per cent more police fatalities than non-r-t-w states (83 vs. 48).

Joseph Phelan
3 years 11 months ago

In reporting this kind od news/opinion, America is getting too far away from its mission. If your going to get political and focus on the anti-presidential side, I'm not sure you are serving us well. Stay in the spiritual arena; report, if you wish, on the positive aspects of reduced crime in the cities.

David Duez
3 years 11 months ago

Read the Chicago Tribune for a few weeks.

Alex Brown
3 years 11 months ago

It is hard to agree with Trump's facts since they are not only plain wrong, but he is just telling lies to make his actions look valid and reasonable. Trying to manipulate the media and news is never a good way of ruling. I believe the "crimes" he has in mind are only committed by the anti-trump protesters. I hope the people won't let him hold his office for as long as four next years.


Tim O'Leary
3 years 11 months ago

Of all the exaggerations and falsehoods Trump states, it seems odd that this one would be selected for challenge, especially since the rise in murders in several cities in the last couple of years has been widely reported (coincident with the rise of BLM protests, and the dramatic reduction in police arrests). Here is Time magazine: "The 30 largest U.S. cities saw a double-digit increase in their murder rate in 2016, according to a new year-end report, even as crime nationwide remains near all-time lows." So, to prove Trump wrong, we just have to ignore the first part of the sentence, and deny the "double-digit" part. Would the author be this sanguine if the murder epidemic were in wealthy suburban communities?

There seems to be a knee-jerk response from the "opposition media" to try to claim every single statement Trump makes is false. But, that only makes the Trump critics the same as Trump, in terms of veracity.

JR Cosgrove
3 years 11 months ago

My comment was the same as Tim's. About the Time article. Here is first two paragraphs

The 30 largest U.S. cities saw a double-digit increase in their murder rate in 2016, according to a new year-end report, even as crime nationwide remains near all-time lows.

A new study released Tuesday by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice projects that the 2016 murder rate for the largest U.S. cities is up 14% from 2015 while the violent crime rate rose by 3.3%. The overall crime rate, however, increased by just 0.3%, thanks in large part to historically low levels of property crime, according to the study's authors.

So, yes in some ways crime is at a low level in the country but in other ways/areas it has increased dramatically.

So Trump is right and Trump is wrong but those who reflexively point out that Trump is wrong are the losers. There is usually something behind most of his comments and he speaks off the cuff a lot. The best example is the remark about Sweden where he was not precise but essentially right.

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