In the United States, anxiety is up, but crime is down

Felony crime declined nationwide in 2015, continuing a historic drop. But mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif., and Charleston, S.C. – as well as a slight uptick in the number of murders – have contributed to the feeling of unease.

Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times/AP
Latonya Jones holds a photo of her mother, Bettie Jones, during a vigil on Sunday, in Chicago. Jones, an antiviolence activist and mother of five, was accidentally killed early Saturday by officers responding to a domestic disturbance on the city’s West Side, police said.

Earlier this month, when New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton told fellow officers that 2015 will end up being the safest year ever in New York City history, he paused to note that it was also “a year of great contradictions.”

Despite the fact that the nation’s largest city is still experiencing historic drops in crime, Commissioner Bratton’s tone was somber: Four police officers had died in the line of duty since this time last year, making the latest crime statistics ring somewhat hollow in a “terrible” year for the NYPD.

And such is the mood across the nation, in many ways. A study at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University found that overall crime was still declining throughout the United States a bit in 2015. Felony crime declined 1.5 percent nationwide, and dropped by roughly 2 percent in New York. But the highly visible violence of the past year – such as mass shootings in San Bernardino, Calif.; Roseburg, Ore; and Charleston, S.C. – as well as a slight uptick in the number of murders, has contributed to the feeling of great contradictions when it comes to crime.

Indeed, 7 in 10 Americans said they believed there was more crime in the US this year than last, according to a Gallup poll in October, up from 2014. That’s despite the fact that the nation’s crime rates have plummeted over the past two decades. But as the polling center noted about its annual survey, “Americans' perceptions of crime … are not always on par with reality.”

“The public's perception of media coverage certainly gives a skewed image of what's going on with crime,” said Matthew Freidman, an economist with the Brennan Center in New York and coauthor of the study, to NPR last week. “What we find is that though we've seen a nearly three-decades-long decline in crime rates, public perception does not match that.”

The rise of social media and the 24-hour digital news cycle, as well as the high-profile nature of some of the deaths, may play into that.

For example, last December, two NYPD officers were gunned down in their patrol cars – randomly targeted by a man who said he wanted revenge for the shootings of black men. A sheriff’s deputy in Texas was shot at a gas station in August, and many police officers say they have felt under siege over the past year. However, there were 39 officers shot and killed so far in 2015 – a drop from 2014, when 47 were shot and killed, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page

At the same, concerns about the number of people shot by police or who died in custody continues to create a climate of tension throughout the country. From the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore to the shooting of a black teen and the accidental killing of a black mother and activist in Chicago over the weekend, it has been a year in which violence has drawn much of the nation’s attention.

It is true that many cities saw a rise in the number of murders this year. In New York, there were 339 as of Christmas Day – slightly more than last year’s all-time low of 333, but still well below the 536 murders recorded in 2010.

However, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston are each projected to see double-digit increases in their murder rates this year. In Baltimore, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, rates have reached levels not seen since the 1990s, studies have found.

But scholars point out that despite such spikes this year, such statistics do not yet indicate a reversal in the dramatic drop in violence in the US over the past few decades, and can be attributed to normal variations in annual numbers. The overall crime rate is still half what it was in 1990, and nearly a quarter of what it was in 2000.

“The increase in the murder rate is insufficient to drive up the crime rate, and using murder as a proxy for crime overall is mistaken,” the Brennan study notes. “It is important to remember just how much crime has fallen in the last 25 years.”

 But tensions remain high, fueled in part by the terror attacks in San Bernardino and Paris. Some 40 percent of Americans say that they believe the terrorists are winning – more than at any time after 9/11 – according to a CNN/ORC poll released Monday.

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter protest movement calling for an end to policing policies that activists say unfairly target minorities, many continue to perceive a “year of great contradictions.” Since last year, some high-profile deaths of black men and some women at police hands have prompted continued clashes and a feeling of unease within the nation’s law enforcement systems and the communities they serve.

In Chicago, police shot and killed two black people over the holiday weekend, including a 55-year-old mother of five and antiviolence activist who was accidentally killed after officers responded to a domestic disturbance by an emotionally disturbed college student.

The shootings come just a month after the Justice Department began an investigation of the Chicago Police Department after the release of a video showing the shooting death of a black teen last year. The video led to murder charges for the white police officer who shot the teen and the resignation of the city’s police commissioner.

By contrast, on Monday, a grand jury in Cleveland declined to bring charges against either of the two officers involved in the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was playing with an Airsoft gun in a park at the time he was shot.

In New York, like the rest of the country, many report a growing sense of anxiety about crime and policing. But in the past five years, crime continued to fall, even as police have made dramatically fewer arrests.

New York City police arrested about 333,000 people through Dec. 20, The New York Times reported, down 13 percent from the 385,000 arrested last year. And these numbers are way down from the 423,000 arrests made in 2010.

So despite the fact that 2015 has been in many ways a rough and contradictory year, police officials are optimistic as both overall crime and the number of arrests continue to fall.

“This is going to be, potentially, a very significant year in terms of the history of index crime in New York City,” Dermot Shea, deputy commissioner of operations for the NYPD, told the Times.

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