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Thursday, June 18, 2015

How to Invent a “Nationwide Crime Wave”

And get away with it

Heather Mac Donald is back in the Wall Street Journal to defend her thesis that there is a huge national crime wave and that protesters and police reformers are to blame.

In her original piece, Mac Donald cherry picked whatever cities and whatever categories of crime showed an increase so far this year, stacked up all the statistics that supported her idea, ignored all the ones that didn’t, and concluded we are suffering a “nationwide crime wave.”

Of course, you could do this kind of thing any year to claim that crime is rising. But it isn’t.

The fifteen largest cities have seen a 2% net decrease in murder so far this year. Eight saw a rise in murder rates, and seven saw an even larger decline.

Guess which cities Mac Donald mentioned and which she did not.

This is how you play tennis without the net. Or lines.

And in her recent post, buried seven paragraphs in, comes this admission: “It is true that violent crime has not skyrocketed in every American city — but my article didn’t say it had.”

But neither did her article acknowledge that murder in big cities was falling overall — in fact, it didn’t acknowledge that murder or violent crime was declining anywhere. Apparently, in her view, it is acceptable to present a distorted view of the data as long as it isn’t an outright lie.

Her argument had three key points: that there is an “environment of nonstop animosity toward police nationally,” that this is making police work more dangerous, and that this is causing police to “disengage,” resulting in a national crime wave.

But surely her readers would have liked to know the rather crucial facts that Mac Donald knew but didn’t bother to mention: that public support for the police has not declined, that shootings of police are down so far this year, and that murder is down as much (and in as many places) as it is up.

Except for the bald admission that she did it on purpose, there’s no defense of her decision to cherry pick data, other than to assert that crime “has gone up in enough places, though, and at startling-enough rates, to warrant close attention.”

I’m not sure the methodology of “being startled” is well regarded among statisticians, but either way, now it has received close scrutiny — and it hasn’t borne up under it.

Mac Donald rightly criticizes those who inflate the risk of citizens being shot by police, but it is equally irresponsible to exaggerate the risk of police officers being killed by citizens, or to spin the experience of a handful of cities into a national trend.

We do need to be safe, and we do need police, but we also need to be sure that police can do their jobs without infringing on the people’s rights. We can all pick and choose the factoids that confirm our narratives, but if we don’t establish some common ground, even common sense reforms will fail. 

  • Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.