February 21, 2017

5 facts about crime in the U.S.

Donald Trump made crime-fighting an important focus of his campaign for president, and he cited it again during his inaugural address in January. With the White House and Justice Department announcing steps to address violence in American communities, here are five facts about crime in the United States.

1Violent crime in the U.S. has fallen sharply over the past quarter century. There are two commonly cited measures of the nation’s crime rate. One is an annual report by the FBI of serious crimes reported to police in approximately 18,000 jurisdictions around the country. The other is an annual survey of more than 90,000 households conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which asks Americans ages 12 and older whether they were the victims of crime in the past six months (regardless of whether they reported those crimes to the police or not). Both the FBI and BJS data show a substantial decline in the violent crime rate since its peak in the early 1990s.

Using the FBI numbers, the rate fell 50% between 1993 and 2015, the most recent full year available. Using the BJS data, the rate fell by 77% during that span. It’s important to note, however, that the FBI reported a 3% increase in the violent crime rate between 2014 and 2015, including a 10% increase in the murder rate. (The BJS figures show a stable violent crime rate between 2014 and 2015, but they do not count murders.) Some experts have projected that the 2016 FBI data will show another increase in the violent crime rate – including another rise in the murder rate – when they are released later this year.

2Property crime has declined significantly over the long term. Like the violent crime rate, the U.S. property crime rate today is far below its peak level. FBI data show that the rate fell 48% between 1993 and 2015, while BJS reports a decline of 69% during that span. Both the FBI and BJS reported a decline in the property crime rate between 2014 and 2015, even as the violent crime rate went up in the FBI’s data. Property crime includes offenses such as burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft and is generally far more common than violent crime.

3Public perceptions about crime in the U.S. often don’t align with the data. Opinion surveys regularly find that Americans believe crime is up, even when the data show it is down. In 21 Gallup surveys conducted since 1989, a majority of Americans said there was more crime in the U.S. compared with the year before, despite the generally downward trend in both violent and property crime rates during much of that period. In a Pew Research Center survey in late 2016, 57% of registered voters said crime had gotten worse since 2008, even though BJS and FBI data show that violent and property crime rates declined by double-digit percentages during that span.

4There are large geographic variations in crime rates. The FBI’s data allow for geographic comparisons of crime rates, and these comparisons can show big differences from state to state and city to city. In 2015, for instance, there were more than 600 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in Alaska, Nevada, New Mexico and Tennessee. By contrast, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Virginia had rates below 200 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. And while Chicago has drawn widespread attention for its soaring murder total in recent years, its murder rate in 2015 – 18 murders and non-negligent manslaughters per 100,000 residents – was less than a third of the rate in St. Louis (59 per 100,000) and Baltimore (55 per 100,000). The FBI notes that various factors might influence a particular area’s crime rate, including its population density and economic conditions.

5Many crimes are not reported to police. In its annual survey, BJS asks victims of crime whether or not they reported that crime to police. In 2015, the most recent year available, only about half of the violent crime tracked by BJS (47%) was reported to police. And in the much more common category of property crime, only about a third (35%) was reported. The proportion was substantially higher for offenses classified as serious violent crime (55%), a category that includes serious domestic violence (61% of which was reported), serious violent crime involving injury (59%) and serious violent crime involving weapons (56%). There are a variety of reasons why crime might not be reported, including a feeling that police “would not or could not do anything to help” or that the crime is “a personal issue or too trivial to report,” according to BJS.

Topics: Criminal Justice, State and Local Government, Violence and Society

  1. Photo of John Gramlich

    is a writer/editor at Pew Research Center.


  1. Willilam Magill6 months ago

    If it bleeds, it leads!

    This editorial rule applies to both Television and Print media and has been gospel since at lest the 1960s when I worked in broadcasting.

    Media reports emphisize the gory because it garners eyeballs (clicks, nowadays).

    But those media reports shape people’s perceptions of reality — you claim not? Tell that to Madision Avenue or the folks at Google Ads.

    Statistics – let alone official government ones – simply do not get the “popularization” which crime and gore get. They do not get the air time nor do they apper “above the fold” the way the latest explosion or rape does.

  2. Anonymous6 months ago

    The presented statistics starts in ’93, when Clinton was president, includes George W. Bush’s time and ends in 2015 during Obama. Are you saying that all these numbers are untrue? When, in your opinion, did they start growing?

    Unemployment…. so it was reported to be 9% at the end of G. W. Bush era by the republican administration. Are you saying that it was really 20% then? Clearly more people have jobs now than in 2008 and foreclosures have come down significantly. What are these trusted sources your are talking about?

  3. Anonymous6 months ago

    Any numbers presented by the Obama Administration I will forever question, such as unemployment–they claimed 4 to 5 % with their methodology. Other trustes sources said about 12 to 15% when you consider those who stopped looking. Crime is no different. Chicago alone would have put crime over the top

    1. Anonymous6 months ago

      The unemployment rate uses a standard methodology that hasn’t changed since God knows when. I suppose you don’t accept any of the prior Presidents unemployment figures either.

      Will you also reject the next unemployment figures when it shows up at still below 5% if your expectation is for something way higher?

  4. Anonymous6 months ago

    That public perception of crime seems to align with the drop in crime itself until the early 2000s. I wonder if there was a significant event in, say, 2001, that might have made people feel less safe than they really are.

    1. Anonymous6 months ago

      “The availability heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on immediate examples that come to a given person’s mind when evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision. The availability heuristic operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important, or at least more important than alternative solutions which are not as readily recalled.[1] Subsequently, under the availability heuristic, people tend to heavily weigh their judgments toward more recent information, making new opinions biased toward that latest news.”
      source – en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Availabili…

      And I would point to this study:
      ” The growth in the internet, 24-hour television and mobile phones means that we now receive five times as much information every day as we did in 1986. ”
      source – telegraph.co.uk/news/science/sci…

      So I would this information overload in our our daily lives combined with the availability heuristic cognitive bias leads most people’s “gut feelings” astray.

  5. Gary Dent6 months ago

    I Believe the amount of violence on TV, in social media, in internet games and in motion pictures has great influence on how people perceive and predict the level of crime

  6. John Ales6 months ago

    The way crimes are reported has changed in the past 8 years. I save a man who was stabbed in the face, the chest and his neck. He almost died twice. the police report was filed as a non life threatening incident. I know of rapes filed as unwanted contact. Don’t forget robberies that disappear if you don’t ask for the report.

    1. Sleepster Bottleneck6 months ago

      I can’t imagine that there’s any way that rape charges could be applied less often than they used to be.

      What city/cities are you talking about, John? Surely this depends on the local police and DA?

      This works both ways. It would be nice to find out that possession wasn’t getting trumped up into intent to distribute as often as it used to be, or if people weren’t being falsely arrested for resisting an officer in certain major cities.