BOB GARFIELD: This week, the FBI's new crime statistics tallied 17,250 homicides in the United States last year, an increase of more than 8-1/2% from 2015. The right-wing media quickly sprang into action. Breitbart's headline read, “FBI Data: Post-Ferguson Murder Spike Reaches 3761 Dead,” while The Daily Caller declared, “The FBI Just Confirmed What Sessions Has Been Saying About Violent Crime.” For his part, Attorney General Jeff Sessions responded with a predictable message of doom.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: In a statement accompanying the report, Attorney General Jeff Sessions warned against such a trend, saying that confronting and turning back the rising tide of violent crime is a must.
BOB GARFIELD: American carnage, yada-yada-yada. And from the political left, also yada-yada-yada, pundits and policy advocates cherry picking the FBI report to support their own doctrine.
Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law School and a former deputy secretary for public safety for New York State, urges less politicking, more clarity.
THOMAS ABT: This crime spike is cause for concern but not panic. Our murder rates are still quite low, compared to what they've been historically. They’re about half of what they were when they hit the high in 1980.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so the administration and the right-wing media played to type, blaming minorities and drugs and doubling down on incarceration, which the data don't necessarily support. But the intellectual dishonesty is coming from the left, as well. In what ways?
THOMAS ABT: There’s a few ways that progressives -- and I consider myself a committed progressive -- downplay this data. The first is that they basically say, this is just a few neighborhoods in a few cities. There’s some truth to that. Six neighborhoods in Chicago were responsible for about 10% of the national rise, and Chicago as a total contributed about 22%. However, violent crime and homicide, in particular, is up in most of America's cities and in most of America’s states.
Another thing they say, which is true, is that the murder rate remains near historical lows. However, even if it is near historical lows, it's literally a matter of life and death.
And then, finally, some of the typical progressive explanations are not accurate. You know, this is about socioeconomic factors, this is about root causes. None of those things have changed from 2014 to 2015 to 2016, so they’re not good explanations of why this crime might be up.
BOB GARFIELD: The abuse of crime statistics, obviously, also interferes [LAUGHS] with how we go about dealing with crime. What should policymakers be doing with this latest FBI report and other data sets?
THOMAS ABT: Well, when these numbers come out they become sort of fodder for an ongoing national argument on criminal justice reform, and what we really need to do is shift the focus from winning arguments to solving problems. The other thing that we need to do is realize that many of our efforts related to criminal justice reform are actually not at odds with reducing crime. They're actually quite consistent with that. At the end of the day, we’re not going to solve this homicide issue unless two major constituencies come together, the police and other law enforcement agencies and communities. And what I worry about is that the intensity of the debate, the heat of the debate, the toxicity of the debate is pulling those two communities farther and farther apart.
BOB GARFIELD: So there is the central crime issue and what is causing this spike in violence, and then there's the larger political issue of whether police are systematically abusing minority communities versus their vital function [LAUGHS] in maintaining civil order. You’re saying the politicization of things like crime data reports makes it harder and harder to hold those apparently opposing ideas in your head at the same time.
THOMAS ABT: Exactly. If you move from a message that is critical of law enforcement to a message that is anti-law-enforcement, that's not particularly helpful because law enforcement is an essential service. Take Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter is enormously important in raising a set of issues in the public's consciousness, but one of the policy recommendations that you often hear associated With Black Lives Matter is basically, get the police out of these communities. That won't be helpful and, in fact, the people living in those communities often want more police, better police. They just don’t want the wrong type of policing, overly aggressive, racially-biased policing.
And so, as someone with experience making policy at the federal level, the state level and at the local level, I can tell you that the politics matters and, if the politics is toxic, it really limits your options.
BOB GARFIELD: If we can assume that the Breitbarts of the world and that the Attorney General Sessions of the world are going to cherry pick crime data to portray it in the most sort of fear mongering and stereotyping way, if the left just takes a more intellectually honest view of the data and of policy notions, have they any chance of prevailing?
THOMAS ABT: Progressives have gotten some things wrong on this latest uptick in violent crime but the narrative coming out of the far right is far worse. Trump and Sessions continue to link violence to immigration, when every serious examination tells us that immigrants are less likely to commit crime than the average citizen. And they continue to link the issue of violence to drugs, in an effort to sort of restart the war on drugs, which was disastrous. Look, the opioid crisis started five years earlier than this recent uptick. It is not likely to be the cause here. And also, the way drug markets work has shifted. There's less violence associated with this opioid epidemic.
Trump and a few people, Sheriff Arpaio, David Clarke and Jeff Sessions --
BOB GARFIELD: Clarke is the Wisconsin sheriff who just left his job who was a Trumpista on all matters drugs and crime.
THOMAS ABT: Right, these sort of four crime dinosaurs threatened to take us back decades to policies that really have already gone extinct. There was an emerging consensus among progressives and conservatives about the need to re-examine many criminal justice policies, and Trump’s emergence, this narrative’s emergence has really disrupted that.
BOB GARFIELD: I feel obliged to ask you this: While the administration likes to suggest that we should be sending local cops in armored personnel carriers down Martin Luther King Blvd. to stamp out the American carnage, once and for all, does not this latest data set actually seem to validate their view of not the solution but of the problem?
THOMAS ABT: I think that that's an interesting point. I do think that progressives sometimes try to look the other way when violent crime begins to rise. And this is really a disservice. We, as progressives, say that we care about the most disenfranchised, the most disadvantaged people, and we owe it to those people to have a progressive response. And we do, the National Network for Safe Communities, Roca in Boston, where I’m from. Becoming a Man in Chicago does great work. There are progressives working directly on violence who don't get enough attention and don't get enough support. Part of the reason is because the highest echelon of progressive leaders sort of sticks to the traditional progressive talking points, and we need a new progressive position on violence. The evidence is there, the work has been done. We just need to talk about it more.
BOB GARFIELD: Thomas, thank you.
THOMAS ABT: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Thomas Abt is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Law School and a former deputy secretary for public safety for the State of New York.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, when it comes to free speech we owe a debt of gratitude to the late Hugh Hefner.