What you didn't hear at the GOP convention: Crime was far more prevalent under Reagan than Obama

A dangerous, dystopian America has become the Trump campaign’s happy place.

Speakers at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland portray a country teetering on the brink of an apocalypse conveyed by criminals, terrorists, immigrants and Black Lives Matter. No one expressed that louder than New York's former mayor.

“The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe,” bellowed Rudy Giuliani Monday night. “They fear for their children and they fear for themselves. They fear for our police officers who are being targeted, with a target on their back.”

How do we "make America safe again," as the convention placards put it? By electing Trump, whom Giuliani linked to his party’s modern paragon.

“He will make America once again, like the president I worked for, Ronald Reagan, the shining city on the hill,” Giuliani said.

Crime fear-mongering has been on Page One of the Republican political playbook since 1964, when the disastrous GOP nominee Barry Goldwater used crime as a proxy for race when he suggested that law-abiding whites were being menaced by riotous African-American “bullies and marauders.” For good measure, he added the blatant dog whistle, “Our wives, all women, feel unsafe on our streets.”

Richard Nixon codified tough-on-crime as a Republican plank in his 1968 convention speech accepting the GOP presidential nomination, painting a word portrait of “cities enveloped in smoke and flames.” (Expect the same sort of fire-breathing from Trump Thursday night; his aides say he will be “channeling Nixon.”)

So how safe were the good old days of Reagan? Not very.

By any measure, America has had far less crime under President Obama than during the Reagan years. But that context is lost in the daily headlines (and the countless tweets) about the latest crime atrocity, says Jeff Asher, a crime data expert based in New Orleans.

“When you ask about crime, people always believe that the worst crime era ever is here and now, more so than any other point in history,” Asher tells me. He adds, “If you’re paying attention to every shooting in your city, you can drown in the anecdotes and lose sight of what was happening four or five years ago.”

The Real Crime Numbers: Reagan vs. Obama

I compared national crime statistics from 1987, after seven years of Reagan anti-crime policies, to 2014, Obama’s sixth year (and the most recent for which FBI Uniform Crime Report data is available). Here are a few takeaways:

  • The overall violent crime rate under Reagan in 1987 was 612 instances of violence for every 100,000 people. In 2014, the violent crime rate was 365 per 100,000, a decline of 40 percent.
  • In real numbers, Americans in 2014 reported about 320,000 fewer violent crimes than in 1987, including homicide, robbery, rape and serious assault. Murder declined from 20,096 cases in 1987 to 14,249 in 2014. (The murder count likely increased last year, but that FBI data won’t be published until September.)
  • Robbery, regarded by experts as a better bellwether than murder of a community’s overall safety, has declined sharply since the Reagan years—from about 518,000 cases in 1987 to 326,000 in 2014, a decline of more than 50 percent when adjusted for the country’s 30 percent population growth over those 27 years.
  • Property crime, by far the most prevalent form of lawbreaking, has also declined sharply. The total number of burglaries, larcenies and vehicle thefts declined by nearly 4 million, from 12 million cases in 1987 to about 8.3 million in 2014. That was a drop of 48 percent when adjusted for population growth.

Police as Targets

Are police officers today wearing a target, as Giuliani contends? Even with the horrific ambush murders of five officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge over the past two weeks, the fatality rate of police officers is significantly lower today than during the Reagan years.

In 1987, the U.S. suffered 183 officer fatalities, including deaths from firearms, traffic accidents and such things as drowning, electrocution, falls and job-related illnesses, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

In 2014, the total was 122 fatalities, a decline of one-third from 1987.

The average annual number of officer fatalities during the Reagan years was 189, compared with 135 so far under Obama.

Despite the Dallas and Baton Rouge attacks, the number of fatalities so far this year, 63, is just one more than the same date last year, although the number of firearms fatalities is up significantly, from 18 at this time last year to 31 so far this year.

Who Is Really at Risk?

New data collected by Asher points out the speciousness of Giuliani’s claim to the overwhelming white convention audience that “the majority of Americans” fear crime victimization.

Black men living in big cities are at much greater risk of violence than the average GOP convention attendee, Asher says. The national rate of murder in 2014 for black men was nearly 26 deaths per 100,000 population. The rate for white men was 3.8 per 100,000. That means black males are about seven times as likely to fall victim to homicide.

Asher compiled comparable murder statistics for 2015 in Baltimore, New Orleans, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago. The racial disparities are striking. In St. Louis, the murder rate for black men was 217.6 per 100,000, nearly 14 times the rate for white men. In Chicago, the rates were 95.7 for black men and just 2.6 for white men per 100,000 population.

“Gun violence is relatively rare,” Asher says. “The cases that do occur mostly affect young black men. The odds of gun violence affecting a white male are exceedingly low.”