Murder Rates Are Plummeting. What Should We Make of It?

A gun is seen in front of a graph showing the declining murder rate
Illustration Lex Villena; Jeff Asher

A few weeks ago, I watched as several people, myself included, stepped on a bit of a digital landmine. The landmine: celebrating declining murder rates.

Homicides spiked in 2020. The trend was real and worrisome. It understandably put many people on edge, particularly in the context of a 24-hour news cycle that favors content that bleeds. But those murderous numbers dropped substantially in 2023 and are, quite thankfully, continuing to retreat significantly. So what should we make of the new data? What are the appropriate caveats? And where are we now in comparison to the Before Times (in this case, before COVID-19)?

First, the big picture: In data from over 200 cities, murder rates are down a little over 19 percent when compared to a similar time frame in 2023. Specifically, New York's homicide rate is down about 18 percent, Washington, D.C.'s has declined 21 percent, Baltimore's has dropped 39 percent, Philadelphia's is down 40 percent, Chicago's has decreased by about 9 percent, Detroit's has fallen about 28 percent, and Cleveland's is down by approximately 33 percent. The list goes on. There are a few outliers—Los Angeles' rate, for instance, has increased by about 6 percent—but overwhelmingly the trend is highly encouraging.

How can we be sure that cities are reporting crime accurately? That concern is a very legitimate one—for certain crimes. Tracking burglaries, for example, is notoriously difficult; the bulk of people simply don't report them. Murders, however, are usually reported to police, which follows basic logic. It is generally pretty difficult to conceal from the government that someone has died. So while it's true that police may not actually solve the crime—law enforcement cleared just over 52 percent of homicides in 2022—they are at least typically aware that it happened.

But aren't murder rates still far above where they were in 2019? It would indeed seem silly to celebrate that homicides are down from super high to, say, very high. Thankfully, that's not the case.

"A murder decline of even half the magnitude suggested by the early 2024 data," writes Jeff Asher, a data analyst and co-founder of AH Datalytics, "would place the US murder rate this year largely on par with or below where it was from 2015 to 2019 prior to the surge in murder in 2020." There are certainly reasons for caution here, chief among them that it is May, not December. The situation could certainly take a turn for the worse. But should the data continue on the current trajectory, then the number of homicides seen in the U.S. will indeed be back to, or under, pre-COVID levels—a concession also recently made by Charles Fain Lehman, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

So does this mean that crime is no longer an issue? No. The vast, vast majority of violent crime is perpetuated by a small group of repeat offenders, who should be met with proportional consequences for their actions. Every murder is one too many. But it's also helpful to have an accurate understanding of the scope of any problem, including this one.

That may not resonate with most Americans. Polls taken over the last several decades show that a solid majority of U.S. adults—at least 60 percent—consistently believe crime is on the rise, even though it was mostly in decline in the periods when those surveys were recorded. Panicked headlines typically travel farther than benign ones, after all. But that doesn't mean they tell the full story.

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