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Washington Post columnist regurgitates nonsense about crime and "Democrat-run cities"
Marc Thiessen spins facile Fox News talking points into an opinion column
Thiessen was responding to a widely-circulated report from the left-leaning think tank Third Way, which found that the states with the seven highest murder rates are all firmly Republican (though Louisiana's current governor is a moderate Democrat).
This, of course, undermines the right-wing narrative that the slightly-less draconian policies of Democratic mayors and progressive prosecutors are turning Our Cities into unlivable hellscapes.
In most of these red states, the high murder rates are driven by the lethal violence in their blue cities.
Take Missouri. Yes, it voted for Trump. But it is also home to two of the most dangerous U.S. cities — St. Louis and Kansas City — both of which are run by Democrats. Earlier this year, CBS News did an analysis of the “deadliest U.S. cities” using the latest FBI and other crime data. In 2019, it found, St. Louis had the highest murder rate in the nation, with 64.54 murders per 100,000 residents. Kansas City, meanwhile, had the eighth-highest murder rate, with 29.88 murders per 100,000.
It’s certainly true that where people live closer together, they’re more likely to kill each other. More density means more crime. This has been true since the dawn of civilization. It has nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans.
But as James Surowiecki points out on Twitter, if we were to eliminate the murder statistics from Kansas City and St. Louis, the rest of Missouri’s murder rate would still be higher than that of New York state, even if you include murder statistics from New York City. Put another way, Republican-run Missouri’s murder rate without its two largest cities is still higher than Democrat-run New York’s with its two largest cities.
The same is true of Louisiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi, three other states Thiessen mentions in his column. Thiessen wants to blame those states’ high murder rates on cities like Jackson, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge. But as Surowieki points out, the murder rates in those states without those cities would still rank among the top 10 most murderous in the country.
Thiessen also dismisses Third Way’s analysis showing that deep-red states like Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska have comparatively high murder rates by pointing out that the overall number of homicides in those states is small. Well, yes. States with significantly fewer residents will have significantly less everything. That’s why we measure these trends with rates.
More from Thiessen:
Third Way does not provide city-by-city data for 2020 in its report, perhaps because this would undermine its red state murder narrative. But the Manhattan Institute’s Rafael Mangual gathered data on the 2020 murder rates in the 50 largest U.S. cities — 34 of which had Democratic mayors, while 14 were led by Republicans (two were led by independents). “The homicide rate in the blue cities was 15.8 per 100,000, compared to 9.4 per 100,000 in the red cities,” he found.
I once debated Mangual, an experience that taught me that he — to put it mildly — does not operate in good faith. At one point Mangual claimed he had “audited” a half dozen studies during my few minutes of rebuttal, and confidently pronounced them deficient.
The only other major study out there claiming to link progressive prosecutors to higher crime rates has some serious flaws, and its author has ties to the same right-wing Manhattan Institute. That author — a former prosecutor who has criticized criminal justice reform efforts — also refused to release his data for peer review.
Jeff Asher, a criminologist and statistician I think most people would say is fair and nonpartisan, found no correlation between cities’ leadership and their crime and homicide rates.
So did this more exhaustive study from the University of Toronto:
We examined the most timely, reliable, and comprehensive set of data on homicide and robbery that was publicly available in the summer of 2022. We took three different approaches to the analysis of these data: we pooled data from 65 major cities, conducted a statistical regression analysis of trends in violent crime as well as larceny in two dozen cities, and compared the incidence of homicide before and after the election of progressive prosecutors in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles, cities where we are conducting on-going research on changes in criminal justice. We have also compared trends in recorded crime across all counties in Florida and California since 2015.
We find no evidence to support the claim that progressive prosecutors were responsible for the increase in homicide during the pandemic or before it. We also find weak evidence to support the claim that prosecutors of any broad approach to crime and justice are causally associated with changes in homicide during the pandemic. We conclude that progressive prosecutors did not cause the rise in homicide in the United States, neither as a cohort nor in individual cities. This conclusion echoes the findings of most of the research to date in this field.
Other studies have similarly found no link between specific policies like bail reform and increases in crime.
Crime data since the pandemic have been weird, volatile, and ahistorical (and the data are only going to get dirtier going forward). Overall, murders and some violent crimes shot up, while property crime and crime overall slightly decreased. In some places, though, property crime went up while murders remained level. Some cities saw spikes in car thefts and burglaries, but lower levels of other property crime. It’s been a weird time. Unfortunately, this means you can make the numbers fit just about any narrative you wish.
Last year, for example, Republicans and police groups pointed out that Oklahoma City was one of the few large cities to see a drop in homicides in 2020. Since Oklahoma City is in a red state, has a Republican mayor, and has a traditional, law-and-order district attorney, conservatives contrasted the city to places like San Francisco and Portland (both of which, it’s worth noting, have much lower homicide rates than most cities in the country). But homicides in Oklahoma City then shot up in 2021, from 76 homicides to 90. So they stopped using it as an example.
The largest U.S. city with a Republican mayor -- Jacksonville, Florida -- set a 23-year high for murders in 2020. The city saw a dip in 2021, but only after that particularly violent year, and it remains the most murderous city in Florida. So if you want to measure the change in murders from 2020 to 2021, Jacksonville is a Republican success story. If you want to measure the overall murder rate, it remains more violent than progressive-led, Republican-whipping boy cities like Tampa.
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The next largest city with a Republican mayor is Ft. Worth, Texas. Homicides soared there in 2021, despite falling in nearby Dallas. The next largest Republican-led cities of Fresno, Mesa, Omaha, Colorado Springs, Miami, and Tulsa have all also seen an increase in murders since the pandemic. Bakersfield, California, which has a Republican mayor and has long been a bastion of conservative politics and law-and-order prosecutors, has long had one of the highest murder rates in the country.
As of 2020, 11 of the 50 largest cities in the U.S. were run by Republicans, and 10 saw a spike in murders since the pandemic began. The only Republican-led city that didn’t was Virginia Beach. Meanwhile Boston, under one of the most progressive prosecutors in the country, has seen shootings and murders remain low throughout the pandemic even as they’ve gone up in most of the rest of the country.
Thiessen is doing some brazen goalpost shifting, here. The initial claim was that Democratic “soft on crime” policies cause crime. When opponents pointed out that there’s a lot more crime in red states than in blue states, the law-and-order crowd pivoted to blame crime on Democratic mayors in those states. When opponents point out that the crime rate in, say, Republican-led Jacksonville or Omaha or Fresno is much higher than in liberal bastions like San Francisco or Portland, the Thiessens of the op-ed pages pivot from overall rates to year-to-year increases or decreases. Or they point out that while a given city may have a Republican mayor, it has a progressive DA, police chief, or sheriff.
Thiessen, for example, blames Memphis for pushing up the murder rate in Tennessee. Not only does Tennessee have a Republican governor and an overwhelmingly Republican legislature, until last month, Memphis long had one of the most ardently law-and-order prosecutors in the country. Somewhere, somehow, there’s always a Democrat to blame. (Oddly, conservative prosecutors never seem to get blamed when crime goes up under their watch.)
And when the data don’t support that contention, the law-and-order crowd just imply that Democrats themselves are more likely to commit crimes.
And in a May report, his Manhattan Institute colleagues Robert VerBruggen and Christos Makridis examined the growth in the homicide rate per capita in the largest U.S. counties between 2019 and 2020 — and then compared the rates in GOP-leaning and Democratic-leaning counties. They found that “counties with higher shares of GOP voters have a much lower homicide death rate and a lower number of deaths in 2020” and “also a lower growth in homicide rates.”
Again, this is the Manhattan Institute, which has been demagoguing crime for years, and spent decades predicting progressive-caused crime waves that never came. More to the point, there’s plenty of evidence that murders are soaring in rural, Republican areas, too.
But even accepting this argument on its face, in 2020 we experienced a once-in-a-century pandemic that caused widespread social upheaval. It also hit cities especially hard. I’m not sure there’s much to be gained at all from comparing 2019 to 2020. For example, if you believe COVID contributed to the rise in crime, then of course it makes sense that counties that were hit hardest (which tended to be the densest, and thus more Democratic) would also suffer larger increases in crime. We also know that Republicans tend to be wealthier than Democrats, particularly Republicans who live in urban areas, and we know there’s a strong correlation between crime and poverty.
The five states that saw the largest percentage increase in murder rates from 2020 to 2021 were, in order, Montana, South Dakota, Delaware, Kentucky and New York — a list that defies any partisan narrative.
In 2021, murders hit all-time highs in cities helmed by both reformist prosecutors (Philadelphia, Austin, Tucson, Portland) and more traditional prosecutors (Indianapolis, Columbus, and Toledo). Similarly, the handful of cities that saw murders fall last year included DAs who are both progressive (Boston, St. Louis, Seattle) and more traditional (Kansas City and Jacksonville). Even here, it's worth pointing out that in most of these cities the drop in murders in 2021 came only after large increases in 2020. Again, the data points here are disparate enough that you can pick and choose them to fit whatever cause you want.
To be clear, I don’t think there’s much evidence that Republican leaders or policies are to blame for the recent spike in murders, either. But there’s zero persuasive evidence that Democratic or progressive policies cause more murders, more crime, or more mayhem. It’s a lazy, facile claim that crumbles under the slightest bit of scrutiny. That’s par for the course for Thiessen. It’s too bad the Post lets him get away with it.