Crime in 2023: Murder Plummeted, Violent and Property Crime Likely Fell Nationally
These trends stand in sharp contrast with polling showing 3 in 4 Americans think crime rose this year.
“100% he's there. Okay fine, 95% because I know certainty freaks you guys out.” - Maya, Zero Dark Thirty.
One of the things I’ve learned freelancing on crime trends over the last few years is that a piece’s author rarely gets to choose the headline, though frequently the author is allowed to weigh in. So it was back in early June of this year when we were putting the finishing touches on my Atlantic piece on declining murder in America.
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My editor at The Atlantic suggested the headline “The Murder Rate Is Suddenly Plummeting” which I said I felt uncomfortable with due to uncertainty as to the size of the decline with half the year left to go. Those subscribers out there who have edited my work in the past will know that my writing is highly analytic with a strong — to the point of obnoxious — focus on estimative language to account for uncertainty. We went with ‘falling’ to describe murder in 2023 because anything else felt too strong given the uncertainty.
Well, here we are in mid-December and the uncertainty is gone.
I’ve seen enough.
Murder plummeted in the United States in 2023, likely at one of the fastest rates of decline ever recorded. What’s more, every type of Uniform Crime Report Part I crime with the exception of auto theft is likely down a considerable amount this year relative to last year according to newly reported data through September from the FBI.
Americans tend to think that crime is rising, but the evidence we have right now points to sizable declines this year (even if there are always outliers). The quarterly data in particular suggests 2023 featured one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the United States in more than 50 years.
Murder is down 12.7 percent in our YTD murder dashboard as of this writing (December 7th) with a decline in 73 percent of the more than 175 cities with available data. The sample suggests either the largest or one of the largest national declines in murder on record occurred this year (both in terms of percent and absolute decline).
Of course declining murder does not mean there were not thousands upon thousands of these tragedies this year. Nor does it mean that there was an acceptable level of gun violence, even in places seeing rapid declines. It simply means that the overall trend was extraordinarily positive and should be recognized as such.
Detroit is on pace to have the fewest murders since 1966 and Baltimore and St Louis are on pace for the fewest murders in each city in nearly a decade. Other cities that saw huge increases in murder between 2020 and 2022 like Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Houston are seeing sizable declines in 2023. There are still cities like Memphis and Washington DC that are seeing increasing murders in 2023, but those cities are especially notable because they are the outliers this year, not the norm.
Our YTD sample draws on a diverse set of cities in terms of population sizes represented. This is important because a healthy mixture of population sizes should decrease the tendency of big cities to overstate national trends.
Murder is down 13.4 percent in cities under 100,000 with data in the sample and it’s down 12.6 percent in cities with 250,000 or more.
Murder was almost certainly still higher in 2023 than in 2019 even with a record double-digit decline nationally this year, but not by much. Most of the surge in murder that occurred in 2020 and 2021 has abated across the country.
It’s not just murder that’s dropping though.
The FBI reported quarterly crime data for the 3rd quarter of 2023 last week. It was the first time since Q4 2020 that enough agencies had reported data for the FBI to be able to publish quarterly national estimates. These aren't the relatively firm final estimates that will be published next year and the quarterly reports are more prone to potential reporting errors, but they are an important barometer of the nation’s direction right now.
The crime trend nationally is incredibly positive — unless you own a Kia or Hyundai.
The FBI’s quarterly data covers data from agencies making up about 78 percent of the US population. The data is only available through September, and some major cities like Chicago and Los Angeles did not report any data. So while there is still some wiggle room in how those numbers will shape up before the end of the year, they paint the picture of a large, potentially historic, decrease in crime occurring nationwide this year.
The quarterly data shows violent crime down in big cities, small cities, suburban counties, and rural counties, pretty much across the board. The property crime trend is similar though surging auto theft in bigger cities is tamping down the overall decline.
The decline in crime shown in the quarterly data — if realized — would be historically large. To put some of this in perspective, a 4 percent decline in the nation’s violent crime rate relative to 2022’s reported rate would lead to the lowest violent crime rate nationally since 1969.
An 8 percent decline in the nation’s violent crime rate — as is suggested is possible by the quarterly data — would look something like this:
The quarterly data through Q3 points to a 6 percent decline in property crime which — if realized — would lead to the lowest property crime rate since 1961.
As I said above, the quarterly data is not the complete national estimates which will be published by the FBI next year, so a grain of salt is needed when thinking of how large the declines will be. That said, the percent changes shown in the quarterly data would be the largest percent declines ever recorded in overall violent crime, murder, rape, and aggravated assault with near-record high declines in robbery, overall property crime, theft, and burglary.
The Q3 estimates were decently predictive of the year end results in 2020, the only other time we had Q3 national estimates. The Q3 estimates in 2020 undersold the year-on-year change in murder because it was actively worsening at the time, but the quarterly estimates were reasonably close (within 4 percent) or spot on with other types of crime. The Q4 estimates which came out in March 2021 were even closer for every crime, so it’s probably worth tapping the breaks a bit on guesstimating the exact size of the decline until that information comes out in March 2024. But the assessment of a widespread decline in crime feels safe enough given the available evidence.
It’ll be another 11 months before the FBI releases year-end crime data to show the degree of these declines. In the meantime, it’s sufficient to say that publicly available data from cities and quarterly data from the FBI show large declines in murder and most other UCR Part I crimes this year even if we won't know the exact percentages for a while.
These trends hopefully will be recognized as the positive developments that they are. In a sane world this new information would change how we talk about crime nationally, releasing people from the myth of a national and unending crime wave.
In other words, tell your friends and family because they probably think crime is surging nationally. And in this case, they’re almost certainly wrong.