No, there's no new murder epidemic

James Alan Fox

June 4, 2015


This year's increase is next year's crime drop.

"The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" proclaimed Chicken Little in the classic folktale about mass hysteria. Along her journey to inform the king of the impending doom, the panicky bird convinced her friends Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey that their lives were in danger.

Apparently, Chicken Little is alive and well, and telling journalists around the country (and abroad) that the U.S. is experiencing a worrisome crime wave. And in this case, it was a recent column in The Wall Street Journal by conservative political commentator Heather Mac Donald, called "The New Nationwide Crime Wave," that has created mass (media) hysteria about lawlessness.

"The nation's two-decades-long crime decline may be over," MacDonald writes. "Gun violence in particular is spiraling upward in cities across America."

Baltimore's recent spate of violence, for example, has received widespread attention, and not just about the April riots sparked by the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. As reported by USA TODAY, there were 43 homicides in the not-so-merry month of May in the city by the Chesapeake Bay, more than any single month for nearly 40 years. Moreover, the year's running total of 116 is well ahead of recent years, seeming like a return of the once popular Baltimore-located television show Homicide.

Meanwhile, several experts have speculated that the police are gun-shy, reluctant to be proactive and take risks for fear of being criticized, sanctioned or, even worse, indicted. However, the evidence on which these explanations are based is largely anecdotal and limited in terms of hard data.

A one-month spike in killings is hardly a raging epidemic. In fact, the year's homicide toll in Baltimore before May stood at 73, precisely the average level for January through April over the previous decade. Chances are, this frightening one-month crime wave will subside, so long as we don't continue to fuel the contagion of fear.

The hysteria surrounding crime levels and questionable theories to explain them are not limited to Baltimore. Apparently, murders in the Big Apple, long regarded as America's safest large city, were up 15% by Memorial Day compared with the same time period last year. A less myopic look at the trend reveals that this year's surge in killings is actually 32% lower than just five years ago. Those details, however, didn't stop the New York Post from blaming Mayor Bill de Blasio's policies for a rise in killings.

It has also been reported that Chicago's murder toll thus far is up 17% over last year. But the Windy City's murder figure for all of 2014 was the lowest it had been for 50 years. Of course, when things hit a half-century record low, just about the only way to go is up.

It is truly unfortunate that partisan politics and competition for a scoop encourage so much of the news media to latch prematurely onto unreliable short-term spikes in crime and declare an emerging crime wave. Most of the time, these spikes are merely statistical anomalies that dissipate as soon as the news focus shifts to other matters.

Turning an old expression on its head, good news is no news, when it comes to the media attention. While statistics in Houston are causing concern, crime in Dallas is down as it is in other locales, including my hometown, Boston.

But there is good news on the horizon for cities being scrutinized for surging crime levels. What goes up generally comes down. This year's crime increase should bring next year's crime drop, and a chance for beleaguered civic leaders and police departments to claim credit for arresting the epidemic that wasn't really there.

And so it was that the frightened fowl, Chicken Little, was able to stir up many of her pals, that is, until wise old Foxy Loxy, who knew the sky was not falling, came along. Without trivializing the pain and suffering associated with the increased death toll in many cities, this Foxy criminologist recommends a more measured approach to crime trends: Wait at least a few years before sounding the alarm.

James Alan Fox, the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, is a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.