Over the weekend, the Dallas Morning News’ editorial board kicked off a piece on the Dallas Police Department restricting some online crime data with this paragraph: “We are all aware that crime has been rising around us. Visit just about any neighborhood social media page or crime watch chat in Dallas, and you will see posts about thefts and break-ins, and you will read about people’s fear for their own safety.”
It’s not true that “crime has been rising around us.” As the paper’s newsroom—separate, it should be said, from whatever it is that’s happening over on the opinion pages—reported yesterday, overall violent crime is down by about 8.5 percent in Dallas when compared to last year, according to police department statistics. The DMN’s editorial board should know better.
But it is true that “just about any neighborhood social media page or crime watch chat in Dallas” is filled with crime talk. This is probably true in most cities, and has been for years: Surveys show that Americans are not great at gauging how much crime is actually happening where they live. People think they’re much, much more likely to be victimized than they actually are. This report in FiveThirtyEight is from last year. Its point stands:
“Crime rates do fluctuate from year to year. In 2020, for example, murder has been up but other crimes are in decline so that the crime rate, overall, is down. And the trend line for violent crime over the last 30 years has been down, not up. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the rate of violent crimes per 1,000 Americans age 12 and older plummeted from 80 in 1993 to just 23 in 2018. The country has gotten much, much safer, but, somehow, Americans don’t seem to feel that on a knee-jerk, emotional level.”
Crime is notoriously hard to measure in a reliable way. The statistics are even harder to interpret. Nobody fully understands why crime rates go up or down. But police officials can convincingly point to strong early returns on Chief Eddie Garcia’s crime plan, which was implemented this year and targets high-crime zones. Dallas is bucking a national trend. Murders are up in many large U.S. cities in 2021. Not in Dallas.
So why is everybody on NextDoor and the Dallas Morning News’s editorial board so afraid? You can blame social media algorithms designed to promote the sensational, and the prevalence of smart phones and doorbell surveillance cameras recording the mayhem that in the past would have earned a paragraph or two in the police briefs section of the paper. You can blame the old fashioned media. Crime gets a lot of local coverage. National cable news channels are big on scare tactics. Editorial boards toss off lines about rising crime without checking whether they’re true. And you can blame politicians at all levels of government for drumming up crime fears when they think it suits them.
In 2019, then still a candidate, Mayor Eric Johnson tweeted that “we need to stop alarming people” by “falsely” claiming that Dallas is in the midst of a public safety crisis. Johnson said then that the city could improve morale and compensation in the police department and address violent crime without “playing at folks’ fears.” In a statement at the time, he said it’s “also important to remember that murders and violent crimes also are symptoms of larger challenges we all face as a city.” (A few months later, after digging into the data, Johnson formed a violent crime task force that has since issued recommendations and launched a fund to help pay for their implementation. These included blight remediation tactics that found success in lowering crime in cities like Philadelphia, as well as civilian violence interrupters, and additional school programs.)
The mayor was right; we can reduce violent crime without resorting to fear-mongering that is divorced from reality.