Killings in the U.S. are dropping at a historic rate. Will anyone notice?

A police officer move crime scene tape
In a country the size of the U.S., scenes like this, of police investigating a homicide in Ontario, CA., are daily occurrences. Overall, however, homicides have declined nationwide after a spike in 2020 and 2021.
(Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
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Homicides in the U.S. dropped significantly in 2022 and have plummeted even faster this year, putting the country on track for one of the biggest declines in killing ever recorded, crime statistics show.

If that comes as a surprise, you’re not alone.

Crime did rise nationwide in 2020 and 2021. The disruption caused by a deadly pandemic, a record increase in the availability of guns, a pullback of policing in some cities and perhaps other factors combined to create a surge in homicides and other crimes.

That national tide has started to recede, but public perception has not kept pace.

That continues to color the nation’s political debates even as reality increasingly diverges from the rhetoric.

A historic decline

Let’s start with the numbers.

The FBI’s annual report on the nation’s crime statistics showed a 6% decline in homicides in 2022. The drop exceeded what most crime experts expected, said Jeff Asher, a crime data analyst and consultant whose AH Datalytics’ site is a widely cited source of information.

The FBI data, which the bureau compiled from reports filed by 18,888 local police departments, lags nearly a year behind reality. Asher, who puts together data from departments that cover a large majority of the nation’s population, says that so far this year, homicides nationwide have declined 11% to 12%.


Cities tend to report first and have larger drops than more-rural areas, Asher noted, so he’s projecting the final, nationwide 2023 numbers will show a smaller drop — somewhere between 7% and 10%.

“A 10% decline would be the largest ever recorded,” he said.

The decline goes beyond homicides: Violent crime overall ticked down in 2022 across the country, the FBI numbers showed, returning the U.S. pretty much to the level of 2019, before the COVID-19-era increase.

That’s consistent with the pattern of the last dozen years. Despite some fluctuations, violent crime nationwide has stayed largely at the same level since 2011, when it hit a plateau after 20 years of steady declines.

That doesn’t mean all categories of crime have declined. Auto thefts, for example, have soared in many parts of the country, in part because of a wave of social media videos publicizing easy ways to steal Kia and Hyundai cars.

But “the concept of a violent crime wave — it just really doesn’t exist,” Asher said.

California declines similar to U.S.

The numbers in California are similar to the national ones: In 2022, the state saw a 6.1% drop in homicides although it had a 5.7% increase in violent crime overall compared with the preceding year, according to data from the Public Policy Institute of California.

In Los Angeles, violent crime has declined nearly 7% so far this year compared with last year, according to Los Angeles Police Department statistics. The city has experienced 1,650 fewer incidents reported as of Sept. 30, the numbers show.


The public perception is very different. Gallup, for example, has surveyed Americans every fall for years about crime. Last year’s survey found that by 56%-28%, Americans said crime had increased in their area.

That’s almost always true. More Americans said crime increased than decreased in all but four of the last 24 years, Gallup found — the exceptions being 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2018. That was true despite the huge decline in crime nationwide that began in 1991, when crime peaked, and continued through 2011 for violent crime and through 2020 for property crimes.

Anecdotes shape perception

Why the gap between perception and reality?

The power of anecdote explains much of it: In a country of nearly 340 million people, some crime takes place every hour, every day. Those incidents stick in people’s minds, especially when the details are grisly. Vivid stories have far more power than dry numbers to shape how people view their world. And in the social media era, crimes anywhere can be just a click away.

“Every time there’s a smash-and-grab, it just amplifies in people’s minds that crime’s out of control,” said pollster David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University polling center, which has surveyed residents of many of the country’s major cities.

Anecdotes have even greater impact when they’re fresh and crime statistics aren’t. Unlike economic statistics, which arrive monthly in real time, the U.S. system for reporting crime data, first set up in the 1930s, remains antiquated and slow. By the time the government reports the data, it’s often too old to inform national debates.

The localized nature of most crime plays a role too. In any year, whatever the national trend, some city probably will have an uptick in crime — often without a clear cause. This year, for example, Washington, D.C., has suffered a sharp increase in killings, in marked contrast to the nationwide decline. San Francisco has experienced a heavily publicized rash of retail burglaries. News tends to focus on the unusual, not the routine, so those outliers get disproportionate attention.


Politics amplifies fears

And, of course, “part of what causes the gap between perception and reality is politics,” said Democratic pollster and strategist Anna Greenberg, whose firm has conducted several studies on public attitudes toward crime.

Even when crime is declining nationwide, some people live in unsafe neighborhoods and have very real fears about being victimized. Black women, for example, many of whom live in urban neighborhoods with high crime rates, are among the groups who rank crime highest on their list of priorities.

They’re not, however, the voters who most often back policies traditionally seen as tough on crime — longer sentences, for example, or expanded police powers. Those voters — generally older, conservative and white — often live in relatively low-crime areas. When polled, they frequently rate their own neighborhoods as safe but say crime is rampant elsewhere.

There’s an obvious racial subtext for many of those voters’ concerns about crime. But race isn’t the only factor. For many voters, worries about crime reflect a concern about “a sense of disorder and chaos” in the world, Greenberg said.

“That doesn’t come out of nowhere. We’ve been in a very unsettling period in our country,” she added.

There’s evidence, however, that even if public perceptions of crime remain at odds with reality, voters are less prone to support “lock them up” as a solution.

Research that Greenberg’s firm has done for Vera Action, a liberal research and advocacy organization, suggests that Democrats often can counter Republican messages on crime by stressing their support for measures like expanded mental health treatment and getting guns off the street.


“A more comprehensive, prevention focus is more popular than just punishing your way out of the problem,” Greenberg said.

Electoral experience backs up that claim. After the killing of George Floyd in 2020, when some Democrats on the left embraced calls to “defund the police,” Republicans stepped up efforts to tag Democrats as soft on crime. Despite widespread worry among Democratic elected officials, however, that effort fell far short of its goal in both 2020 and 2022, including in the Los Angeles mayoral election, in which Rick Caruso leaned heavily on concerns about crime and homelessness in his unsuccessful campaign.

If that’s true when voters think crime is on the upswing, just imagine what might happen if the country begins noticing that it’s on the way down.

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