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Violent crime is dropping across the country, so why do Americans feel less safe?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For people in the U.S., 2020 was one of the most dangerous years in decades. The first year of the pandemic saw a huge spike in violence. The number of homicides in the country rose about 30% from 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JEFF ASHER: It was bad everywhere.

SHAPIRO: That's crime analyst Jeff Asher. NPR spoke to him a few times in 2021.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ASHER: You know, we'll probably have the most murders this year since we had - since 1994 or 1995, and that's just tragic.

SHAPIRO: But fast-forward a couple years, and things look very different. As Jeff Asher recently wrote, 2023 featured one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the U.S. in more than 50 years. Here's what he told me just the other day.

ASHER: At some point in 2022 - at the end of 2022 or through 2023, there was just a tipping point where violence started to fall, and it's just continued to fall.

SHAPIRO: In big cities and small, from the East Coast to the West, violence has dropped dramatically.

ASHER: The national picture shows that murder is falling. We have data from over 200 cities showing a 12.2% decline at this point.

SHAPIRO: But if you ask people what they think is happening with violent crime in the U.S., you get a very different answer.

ASHER: There's never been a news story that said there were no robberies yesterday, nobody shoplifted at Walgreens.

SHAPIRO: According to a Gallup poll released in November, more than three-quarters of Americans believe there's more crime in the country than there was last year. And the numbers show that's just not true in most U.S. cities.

ASHER: The only way that I find to discuss it with people is to talk about - this is what the data says. You know, you're wrong. And then I'll take out my phone and say, look, here's a chart for the graphic learners.

SHAPIRO: Violent crime is down by a lot, and many Americans simply don't believe that fact. So I wanted to understand two things - why has crime dropped, and why don't people perceive it that way? Crime analyst Jeff Asher is co-founder of AH Datalytics, and he says what you see depends a lot on what you're looking at.

ASHER: I'm in New Orleans, and gun violence for the first half of 2023 was just as bad as in previous years, and it just fell off a cliff. And we had a 25 - I think - percent decline in murder this year and starting January with half as much gun violence as we had last year.

SHAPIRO: In the majority of cities where violent crime is going down, can you answer the question why?

ASHER: It's a really hard question to answer, and I always caveat my answer with - criminologists still aren't sure why violent crime went down in the '90s. It's not something that you can point to four or five explanations and say, these are the four or five reasons.

SHAPIRO: So a lot of people have studied this for a lot of years, and they still don't know.

ASHER: It's really hard, but we do have ideas. And we can kind of point to what some of the ingredients probably are, even if we can't bake the cake and tell you what the exact recipe is. When I think about what is the best explanation, you have to describe 75% of cities seeing even or declining murders. You have to describe a big national trend of San Bernardino, Calif. and New York both seeing the same thing - of big declines in gun violence. And so the national explanations - the big explanations - are going to be a lot more compelling than our department did patrols on every other Thursday, and that's why we think it declines.

SHAPIRO: So the San Bernardino police might be doing something right, but that doesn't explain a national trend.

ASHER: It doesn't.

SHAPIRO: And to complicate the narrative even more, in many cities where violent crime is down, police departments are understaffed. There are some outliers to this trend of crime dropping. Murder rates are up in Washington D.C., Memphis and Seattle, but the national trend is clear. From places like San Francisco...

RACHEL SWAN: Crime has decreased, not necessarily significantly, but somewhat since last year.

SHAPIRO: ...To Baltimore...

LEE SANDERLIN: 2023 was the largest single-year reduction in homicides in the city's history.

SHAPIRO: ...To Minneapolis.

ANDY MANNIX: We've seen two years now of crime incrementally going down, which I think is enough to say there's a positive trend there.

SHAPIRO: You just heard from three reporters. Rachel Swan is a breaking news and enterprise reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Lee Sanderlin is an enterprise reporter for The Baltimore Banner, and Andy Mannix is the Minneapolis crime and police reporter for the Star Tribune. We brought them together to get the ground-level view from three different cities. And I asked them about perceptions. If crime is down, why are people reluctant to believe it?

SWAN: There's two really visible crises in San Francisco that are kind of in-your-face, and they're right downtown. One is that there's a lot of homelessness, and the other is that there is, frankly, a lot of - and has been for a long time - a lot of open-air drug use. And, honestly, people conflate that with crime - with street safety.

SHAPIRO: Does that resonate with you, Andy or Lee, in Minneapolis or Baltimore? Do you think there's a divide between perception and reality?

MANNIX: Absolutely in Minneapolis. I think, over these past few years, a lot of people associate Minneapolis as ground zero for the abolish-the-police movement after what happened with George Floyd and the protests and riots here that spread across the country. Minneapolis has become a target of particularly right-wing politicians and right-wing media as sort of an example of what happens when that thin blue line crumbles.

You know, in actuality, the - Minneapolis voted against abolishing its police department and has increased the police budget. You know, there are many caveats. Carjackings are down, but car thefts are way up. We actually did a story where we calculated that there was a car theft every hour in Minneapolis in 2023, if you averaged it out. And that's far and away more than anything we've ever seen before.

SHAPIRO: Lee, do you connect with what you're hearing Rachel and Andy say? Does this sound like your experience in Baltimore? Baltimore has - it must be said - a reputation when it comes to crime. Do you feel like you're fighting that with the reality?

SANDERLIN: Yes and no. It's a punching bag for Republican politicians and for a number of reasons. I mean, it's a majority-Black city, where crime is higher than most places. I mean, even with our large decrease in murders, we still have one of the highest homicide rates in the nation on a per-capita basis.

But at the same time, I mean, people's perception of crime in the city is really warped by how they get their news, what types of media they consume and how plugged in they are and they want to be. There was a story this summer about how violent the city was based on a 3-mile radius of where the baseball stadium is. Well, Baltimore's not a very big city in terms of - you know, in terms of land. I mean, 3 miles will get you from some of the nicest neighborhoods to some of the most disinvested neighborhoods, some of the worst neighborhoods. I mean, that's like - that's not an accurate measure, but that was passed off as a news story.

SHAPIRO: And that points to the challenge of describing crime in a city when, really, crime might be one way in a neighborhood and different in a neighborhood just a mile away.

MANNIX: What we found is that crime and gunfire, in particular - as it went up, it did not go up across the city. There really were a few neighborhoods that saw, you know, 350% rise in gunfire, and others saw none. So depending on where you live, I think that the - your experience was very, very different here in Minneapolis and continues to be.

I get emails all the time and calls from people who say I - you know, I'm planning on coming into Minneapolis to go to our local theater, the Guthrie, with my family, and is it safe, you know? Like, should I not bring my family there?

SHAPIRO: They're emailing - readers are emailing you to ask you that question?

MANNIX: Yeah, readers are emailing me, asking me, personally...

SHAPIRO: What do you say?

MANNIX: I mean, I don't - I don't know what to say. You know, if it seems like a real question, I do the best I can to answer it.

SHAPIRO: I don't think anybody has a 100% certain answer to this question, but the three of you have a closer perspective and more information than most. Why do you think crime is going down? What accounts for the change?

SWAN: Crime is so much more complicated than a lot of people realize, you know? Many officials I've spoken to in law enforcement subscribe to the theory that a small number of people are prolific perpetrators of crime. They would say we've gotten better at arrests and investigations. Whether that's provable, I'm not sure.

SHAPIRO: Lee, you want to take a stab at why crime might be going down in Baltimore right now?

SANDERLIN: We actually wrote a story right before the holidays, in December, about, you know, who's going to try to take credit for this - this decrease? We have a new elected prosecutor who is - you know, at every turn, he's saying, I'm tough on crime. The streets know I'm tough on crime. Our U.S. Attorney's office is bringing more felony possession of firearm cases than the office had - brought more of those cases last year than they had in almost 20 years. You know, so that's a different style of policing.

At the same time, the mayor's office is investing heavily in, you know, connecting would-be offenders with services like employment services, housing assistance, educational assistance, you know, mental health services. And the police department has largely embraced a focused-deterrence model of policing, which targets what they would call hotspots for violence. And you kind of put all of that in the blender with a generally better economy, more people are sort of getting back to a pre-pandemic way of life, and, you know, that probably has something to do with it.

SHAPIRO: What do you think it's going to take for people to believe you?

SWAN: Gosh, what a question (laughter). You know, I mean, one thing I'm starting to learn in reporting on public safety is that you can put numbers in front of people all day, and numbers just don't speak to people the way narrative does. And it just isn't as powerful as Citizen app or Nextdoor or, you know, headlines coming from a news outlet. It's just really difficult to get people interested in data and numbers.

SANDERLIN: I would echo that. If you know someone who was robbed walking back from a bar in Baltimore, then, like, you're going to become worried about that, even if that was a rare occurrence.

MANNIX: Yeah, I think that they're both spot-on. People respond very emotionally, I think, to crime. And so when they hear about something really bad happening to somebody, that really influences how they look at the place where that happened.

SHAPIRO: That was Andy Mannix, the Minneapolis crime and policing reporter for the Star Tribune, Lee Sanderlin, an enterprise reporter for The Baltimore Banner, and Rachel Swan, breaking news and enterprise reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHIANNON GIDDENS' "MOUNTAIN BANJO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.