The truth about American cities: Despite popular belief, they are much less violent than they were just a couple of years ago.
Violence has dropped across dozens of cities after a surge of shootings, murders and burglaries triggered by the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic.
Consider New York, the nation's largest city and something of a gauge for crime trends in other big cities.
The city witnessed a staggering 50% increase in homicides in 2020 and 2021. But last year, they fell by 11% to 433, and so far this year, they’ve dropped another 7% to 113, according to city police data.
Although the city’s murder rate remains above its pre-pandemic level, it is far lower than the early 1990s when it recorded more than 2,200 murder victims, said David Kennedy, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“The popular perception that New York City is distinctively dangerous is simply not correct,” Kennedy said in an interview. “It's far safer than many, many, many other places in the United States.”
Yet most people don’t take a long view of crime trends, noted Eddie Garcia, chief of the Dallas Police Department and president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
“They don’t care where we were 25 to 30 years ago,” Garcia said. “They care where we are today. And certainly, violence has been rising for the last three to five years.”
Tapping into that fear, House Republicans traveled to New York on Monday for a hearing focused on “violent crime and lawlessness in the city.”
Accusing Manhattan’s top prosecutor, Alvin Bragg, of letting criminals off the hook, Jim Jordan, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, cited 2022 data showing rising felony assaults, robberies, burglaries and auto thefts.
“Imagine that — you leave criminals on the street, you get more crime,” Jordan said.
Left unmentioned were homicides, which have fallen in New York over the past year, making it one of the safest big cities in the country.
“It is simply a fact that New York City is dramatically safer than it used to be,” Kennedy said.
New York’s fewer homicides reflect a national trend.
Consulting firm AH Datalytics reports a nearly 10% fall in homicides in more than 70 cities this year.
The list includes cities that have struggled with violent crime in recent years: Baltimore, Houston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia.
Even Chicago, the nation’s “murder capital” last year, has slashed homicides by 17% through April 9.
The drop in murders this year continues a decline in most violent crimes in major cities in 2022, according to the Council on Criminal Justice.
The national police chiefs association also reported a decrease in the number of homicides through the first three quarters of last year.
But some cities buck the trend. Homicides are up in 25 cities tracked by AH Datalytics, such as Washington, Dallas and Kansas City.
“There is no single story about all major U.S. cities,” Kennedy said. “Except in the broadest terms, individual cities are often on very separate tracks.”
Garcia acknowledged that gun crime remains a challenge in his city, where homicides have spiked by 20% this year after a decline in 2022.
But gun-related aggravated assault, a better gauge of violent crime, is down in Dallas, Garcia said.
“Although one life is too many — we don't want to lose lives — what would worry me would be if our gun-related aggravated assaults were rising,” Garcia said in an interview with VOA.
Under Garcia, Dallas has launched a new, data-driven crime plan focused on reducing violent incidents.
The plan is paying dividends, he said.
“We've had the least amount of violent incidents in the city of Dallas, more than we've had in five years,” he said.
Why crime falls in one city but not another is often hard to pin down with precision. But over the long run, most cities converge on a national trend, said Richard Rosenfeld, an emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Missouri.
That has fueled hope among some criminologists that U.S. cities may have turned a corner and may resume a decades-long downtrend in crime rates.
But Rosenfeld cautioned that the country is not out of the woods yet. Most U.S. cities still have higher homicide rates than before the pandemic, he said.
The pandemic delivered a shock to homicide rates by changing conditions in every sector of society, he said.
“But the undoing of the conditions of the pandemic has taken a far longer period of time than the abrupt changes that occurred when the pandemic first took place,” Rosenfeld said.
Among other disruptions, the pandemic unleashed a wave of unemployment and record inflation that wreaked havoc on society.
“Assuming that those conditions continue to … moderate, we should not see big spikes and homicide in the immediate future,” Rosenfeld said.
But crime ravages poor, mostly Black neighborhoods. And even if the overall violent crime rates drop, it will mean nothing to the people most vulnerable: young Black men.
“And the focus should be on that reality and not trying to read tea leaves about what's going to happen in the next six months,” Kennedy said.
Republicans meeting in Manhattan on Monday blasted the city’s top prosecutor, saying he was coddling criminals instead of protecting victims.
Garcia said he agreed that “the lack of accountability has played a role in violence in this country.”
“I can tell you there have been irresponsible decisions made by judges allowing individuals back out on the street after they've admitted gun crime,” Garcia said.
“We don't get to say we're serious about gun crime in this country when I have men and women who sacrificed their lives to take criminal elements off the street … only to see those individuals back out on the street in a matter of days or weeks,” he said.