Democrats Downplaying Violent Crime Are Playing Politics With Poor People's Lives | Opinion

If you're a poor or working class person of color living in any number of major American cities, you don't need the press to tell you what you already know: that America has become less safe over the last year. Not that the press has covered the skyrocketing rise in homicides across the nation since the COVID-19 pandemic began; mainstream media outlets seem to be going out of their to ignore it—or worse: to downplay it.

"'Overall crime decreased in 2020' in the U.S., report finds," read a recent headline from NBC News atop an article touting a report from the Democratic Party-aligned think tank Third Way. The report informed Americans concerned over crime not to believe their lying eyes. "After crime rates in the U.S. surged in the second half of the 20th century, moderate Democrats persuaded the party to toughen up its platform in the 1990's to channel widespread voter concerns spreading from big cities to the suburbs," write NBC News reporters Sahil Kapur and John Schuppe. "But today, as Republicans revive familiar warnings about out-of-control crime in pursuit of regaining power, the prominent moderate Democratic group Third Way has a different message for the party: Don't take the bait; it's a lie."

Out-of-control crime is a lie? NBC's writers are correct that this is indeed the conclusion Third Way's report came to. "Contrary to the media narrative, overall crime decreased in 2020 compared to 2019," reads the report. "A spike in homicides in 2020 is unique to homicides and is an outlier when compared to other crimes."

In other words: Don't worry, it's just the most violent crimes that increased last year.

Though 2020 saw "the largest increase in violence we've seen since 1960," as John Roman, a crime analyst at the University of Chicago, noted, Third Way's suggestion seems to be, there's not much to see here. It seems St. Louis residents who have seen a homicide rate hit the highest level in 50 years and 262 people killed should just take heart—after all, petty theft is down.

"There seems to be a hysteria that began about a year and a half ago to try and convince Americans that we're undergoing another crime wave," Jim Kessler, Third Way's executive vice president for policy, told NBC News.

Chicago gun violence
People walk during an anti gun violence march on the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, Illinois, on December 31, 2020. - In Chicago, murders for 2020 through December 27 stood at 768, up a whopping 252 from the 2019 total of the 516. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Charles Lehman, a Fellow at the Manhattan Institute who focuses on policing and criminal justice issues, disagrees. "Among the people who have been publicly proclaiming that America has a crime problem right now... we've all been pretty clear that the problem is with a surge of violent crime," he told me, noting the "gaslighting" of the Third Way report before it eventually notes the rise in homicide.

The report does quietly acknowledge the violence. "To be fair to those concerned about rising crime rates, murder is unique and most noteworthy and most feared by people. A spike in the murder rate is alarming and should not be discounted," the authors of the report write. But they also seek to downplay the violence by lumping it in with other types of crime. "At the same time [murder] is also the rarest of crimes. In 2020, murders represented 0.2 percent of the seven crimes measured in our analysis," they proclaim.

It's fine to note that many categories of crime declined last year, not only in the United States but elsewhere in the world. One study released earlier this year estimated that the COVID-19-related stay-at-home restrictions were associated with substantial drops in crime in many places around the world. Contrary to claims that the pandemic would drive a spike in crime, it appeared to do the opposite: Property crimes like theft and robbery went down. And we should indeed be grateful for this silver lining.

But Third Way is trying to be a bit too clever by accusing those of us who are worried about rising violent crime as engaging in hysteria. Lumping in a bunch of minor crimes with major crimes like shootings and homicides in order to boast that overall crime is falling is more of a political maneuver than an analytical one.

Third Way is a think tank that is close to the Biden Administration, which has middling approval ratings on its approach to public safety. The crime report appears to be an invitation to claim that Biden and the Democrats are being dealt a bad hand: If you ignore the most violent crimes and a historic surge in deaths from those crimes, crime is going down!

The authors of the report tip their hand a bit when they note that there "appears to be no difference in crime trends between Republic-led and Democratic-led states," introducing this fact by complaining that "particularly in conservative media outlets like Fox News there is a drumbeat that overly permissive crime policies enacted by Democrats are putting Americans at risk to violent crime."

But the highest levels of crime are typically found in certain neighborhoods in certain cities, and almost all of those cities are run by Democrats; it's dishonest to blame that fact on the only news outlet willing to cover it, even if that outlet is politically motivated. That certainly doesn't mean that Republicans would tackle these issues better, but the state comparison obscures more than it clarifies. It's a clear attempt to shift responsibility away from elected officials, most of them Democrats, who are failing to combat rising violent crime in their jurisdictions.

"Clearly they see their political opponents mobilizing this for their benefit. They see that crime is going to be a big deal in 2022," Lehman told me. "Their instinct is to downplay real trends."

It's noteworthy that Third Way represents the more moderate wing of the Democratic Party—the wing that typically emphasized policing responses to rising crime and helped push forward law-and-order, tough-on-crime policies in the 1990's. Which means that if even the moderate Democrats see it as necessary to downplay violent crime trends, it suggests the party more broadly, which includes an outspoken progressive wing that advocates for alternatives to policing, isn't taking the violence that's happening in America seriously.

Petty crime continues to decline in much of the United States. But those aren't the crimes that are traumatizing communities and leading to too many unnecessary funerals. Third Way's report is much more political than it is principled, and we need the people in power to stop playing politics with people's lives.

Zaid Jilani is a journalist who hails from Atlanta, Georgia. He has previously worked as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress, United Republic, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Alternet. He is the cohost of the podcast, "Extremely Offline."

The views in this article are the writer's own.