The same day that President Donald Trump signed three executive orders pertaining to crime reduction, Jeff Sessions kicked off his first day as U.S. attorney general by presenting the nation with some alternative facts.
“We have a crime problem,” Sessions said. “I wish the rise we were seeing in crime in American today were a blip. My best judgment, having been involved in criminal law enforcement for many years, is that this is a dangerous permanent trend.”
While 2015 did see the first national uptick in violent crime since 2006, the trend has otherwise been mostly on the decline, FBI data shows. And some cities, notably Chicago, have seen an increase in crime rates, but this does not align with the national trend.
Despite this, Trump signed three executive orders Thursday, all pertaining to crime and policing.
One order tasks the Department of Justice to create a “Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.” According to the order, the task force will track and analyze data in order to develop ways to reduce crime — specifically “illegal immigration, drug trafficking, and violent crime.”
Tying immigration to violent and drug-related crime feeds Trump’s narratives that immigrants are more likely to be criminals than native-born Americans — an assertion that data does not support. In fact, as the immigrant population has increased over the years, rates of violent crime have decreased.
And despite FBI data showing an overall decrease in violent crime in recent years, that has not stopped Trump and his team from spreading false data. On Tuesday at a White House meeting with county sheriffs Trump claimed that the murder rate is the highest it’s been in 47 years.
“… the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years, right? Did you know that?” he said. “Forty-seven years. I used to use that — I’d say that in a speech and everybody was surprised, because the press doesn’t tell it like it is. It wasn’t to their advantage to say that. But the murder rate is the highest it’s been in, I guess, from 45 to 47 years.”
Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics tells a different story.
The murder rate per 100,000 people was 8.8 in 1977, and a steady upward trend was seen until the mid-1990s. Since 1994 it has mostly been on the decline, and, as the FBI reported, in 2015 the rate was 4.9. So while 2015 did see an uptick when compared to 2014, the first time since 2006, the assertion that the rates themselves are at an all-time high is incorrect.
The second order pertains to drug cartels and trafficking and promises to “ensure that Federal law enforcement agencies give a high priority and devote sufficient resources to efforts to identify, interdict, disrupt, and dismantle transnational criminal organizations and subsidiary organizations.” This speaks to Trump’s narrative of criminalizing immigrants as well, particularly when he kicked off his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals” who are bringing drugs to the U.S.
The order also points to a correlation between drug trafficking and violent crime — a belief experts say is difficult to prove.
“The empirical evidence shows clearly that there is no direct ‘cause and effect’ relationship between drugs and violence. In other words, when there are very large, easy to obtain illegal drug profits, it is not ‘natural’ that people kill each other for them,” one study explains.
While drug cartels are by nature operating illegally, a direct link to violent crime does not exist: “The existence of strong criminal organizations does not necessarily indicate high levels of violence. Criminal organizations control the use of violence to avoid the government focus on them. Needless to say, a very wealthy drug trafficker cannot enjoy his money in the cemetery.”
The third order relates to violence against law enforcement and calls for “increase[d] penalties for existing Federal crimes, in order to prevent violence against Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.” It does not give information on what these penalties could be, but on the campaign trail Trump said he would make the murder of a police officer punishable by death — a promise that would likely face legal hurdles, Politifact reported.
While shootings against police officers have garnered much attention in the media, data have not signaled an overall upward trend. Preliminary data for 2016 when compared to numbers for 2015 show an increase in firearms-related fatalities. However, when looking at averages by decade, fatalities by firearms have been on a downward trend since the 1970s:
Average Officer Fatalities by Decade (Firearm-Related Deaths)
Decade Average Officer Fatalities
In 2016, 135 officers were killed in the line of duty, and an estimated 900,000 law enforcement officers work in the United States. Therefore, the death rate per thousand for police in 2016 was 0.015. In contrast, the infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births for a Black baby in the United States is 11.3. Therefore, it is close to 1,000 times safer to be a police officer than a Black infant.
While violence against police is tragic and not to be ignored, Trump’s orders and Sessions’ history indicate police department reform implemented by former President Barack Obama and his Justice Department will not continue. Investigations into police departments in Chicago, Baltimore and Ferguson have signaled serious causes for concern, including internal cover-ups, violence and racial profiling.
However, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):
“Sessions’ regard for the police sometimes borders on being unreflective and uncritical. The senator seems to think that the high-profile incidents of excessive police force are isolated and the result of bad apples, not bad policies. After the shootings of the Dallas police officers in July of 2016, Sessions issued a statement which included this: ‘As a nation, we must send a unified message that we will not stand silent while those who protect and serve are unfairly maligned for the actions of an unrepresentative few.’
“Yet, there have been nearly 2,200 people killed by police in America over the past two years, according to The Guardian’s database, ‘The Counted.’ Disproportionately, those people were people of color. For instance, in 2015, a Black person was more than two-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by police than a white person when controlling for population size. In 2016, that disparity increased to over three times more likely.”
Despite data indicating the opposite, Americans widely believe that crime is on the rise, according to a 2015 Gallup poll, at which time 70 percent of Americans said crime had increased over the previous year. And as Trump continues spreading false data, this unsubstantiated belief is likely to continue.
In a statement Jeffrey Robinson, deputy legal director of the ACLU, said that Trump’s orders seek to “investigate and stop national trends that don’t exist” — and ignore existing problems.
“The president not only doesn’t acknowledge these facts about our nation’s safety, he persists in ignoring the all-too-real deaths of Black and brown people at the hands of law enforcement,” Robinson said.
“There are some cities that have had recent rises in violent crime, and they deserve help. And every locality in America wants to further reduce crime and violence. But task forces premised on misinformation, and looking in the wrong places for the wrong problems, are not the answer.”