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4 key takeaways from the FBI's annual crime report

Police tape is pictured at a crime scene in Monterey Park, Calif., in January 2023.
Frederic J. Brown
/
AFP via Getty Images
Police tape is pictured at a crime scene in Monterey Park, Calif., in January 2023.

Homicide rates in the U.S. fell significantly last year, according to newly released FBI data. But reports of hate crimes and property theft increased.

The FBI's Crime in the Nation analysis compiles annual crime statistics from more than 15,000 law enforcement agencies across the country. These agencies submit data voluntarily and participation is uneven. Still, the report is the most complete view of reported crime trends nationwide.

Here are four major points from the data for 2022.

Homicides are down but still higher than they were pre-pandemic

The homicide rate fell significantly last year, by slightly more than 6% compared with 2021.

Many experts were anticipating a drop, which confirms nationally what they were hearing about fewer reported homicides on the local level. In 2020, the U.S. saw the largest rise in killings in more than a century. Homicide numbers have since dropped, but they still aren't back to where they were in 2019, before the pandemic. Data from other researchers suggests the decrease will continue for 2023.

Understanding exactly why homicides rose so dramatically in 2020 – or why they're falling now – is complicated and there are likely many factors. But there are theories that intuitively make sense, says Ames Grawert, justice program senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice.

"The disorder of the pandemic and the stress that caused on all of our social institutions, the way it shut down key parts of communities like violence intervention programs, schools, libraries, things like that, you shouldn't understate the impact of those things," Grawert says.

An increase in guns as well as de-policing, or law enforcement disengaging from proactive police work, may have also played a role in the spike, says Justin Nix, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

"But I would also say that in 2020, that one year spike was historic," says Nix. "So it shouldn't be super-surprising a couple of years later that we have a not historic, but a pretty drastic decline in the homicide rates."

Overall, reports of violent crime – including rape and aggravated assault – also fell last year. In the crimes that were documented, guns were a commonly used weapon, and both victims and offenders were mostly in their 30s or younger.

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FBI Crime Data Explorer

Property and car thefts are going in the wrong direction

Reports of larceny, which basically means stealing, and motor vehicle theft both increased significantly last year, by about 8% and 11%, respectively.

Experts trace the rise in motor vehicle thefts to a TikTok trend that exposed security vulnerabilities in Hyundai and Kia vehicles and made them easier to steal. But Grawert says the rise in car thefts and shoplifting, a form of larceny, should be taken in context.

"Property crime has been on a more or less downward path for almost 30 years," Grawert says. "The 2022 data in that context is kind of a rebound. It's not necessarily an increase over the pre-pandemic baseline."

Property crime, however, tends to be less reliably reported than homicide or other violent crime data.

/ FBI Crime Data Explorer
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FBI Crime Data Explorer
/ FBI Crime Data Explorer
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FBI Crime Data Explorer

Hate crimes are up, but we need better data

Reports of hate crimes have been on the rise for decades.

Last year, there were more than 11,000 reported hate crimes, which are motivated by certain aspects of a victim's identity, including race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. Black people, Jewish people and gay men were the most likely to be targeted.

All crimes tend to be undercounted, and that's especially true for hate crimes partly because they rely on the discretion of police, says Insha Rahman, vice president for advocacy and partnerships at the Vera Institute of Justice.

"Many jurisdictions don't accurately capture what is a hate crime or not, and it is a much harder crime to accurately capture because it requires sussing out intent," Rahman says. "That is just a much more nebulous thing than, say, was property taken, was somebody injured."

In 2017, James Cullen, then a researcher at the Brennan Center, highlighted this problem.

"According to the FBI, there were zero hate crimes in Mississippi in 2015. None. That is unbelievable, in a literal sense. We should not believe it," Cullen wrote.

"Shaky is an understatement," Nix said when describing the hate crime data.

Even if a crime is not coded as a hate crime, that doesn't necessarily mean it's going unprosecuted. In many cases, the crime itself – like intimidation, assault or vandalism – is what appears on paper.

But Rahman says marginalized communities don't need statistics to understand the rise.

"There's a very real fear that particular communities have in this country that they are more likely to be targeted," she says. "The stabbing of a 6-year-old Muslim boy or swastikas on a synagogue up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, those are the things that really drive perception and fear, more so than these numbers."

Prepare for a spin cycle

Republicans have been quick to blame Democrats for increases in crime – a political refrain that's not always backed up by data. Both Alabama and Massachusetts, states at different ends of the political spectrum, saw violent crime rise last year, while Florida and Rhode Island saw it fall.

"When we say crime, what are we talking about? Are we talking about the scariest stuff, homicides and robberies? Well, this report gives us reason, at least at the national level, to be optimistic, though that might not be true in your own backyard," says Nix, of the University of Nebraska Omaha. "If we are worried about having our property stolen, then this report gives us reason to be a little bit concerned that it's going in the wrong direction. And again, that might not be true in your own backyard."

What's more, how people think about crime and the level of crime being reported aren't always aligned. For instance, a poll from last October indicated most people surveyed thought violent crime was increasing nationwide.

"People's views of crime sort of get stuck in the past. I've heard some policymakers on fairly big stages talk about crime as if it was still 2020," Grawert says.

"It's a real problem that our understanding of crime lags reality, and it means we're always a little behind the times in making policy and in talking about public safety."

NPR's Martin Kaste contributed to this report. contributed to this story

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Meg Anderson
Meg Anderson is a reporter and editor on NPR's Investigations team. She reported the award-winning series Heat and Health in American Cities, which illustrated how low-income neighborhoods nationwide are often hotter in temperature than their wealthier counterparts. She also investigated the roots of a COVID-19 outbreak in a predominantly Black retirement home, and the failures of the Department of Justice to release at-risk prisoners to safer settings during the pandemic. She serves as a producer and editor for the investigations team, including on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She has also reported for NPR's politics and education desks, and for WAMU, the local Member station in Washington, D.C. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.