Crime, and the Politicians Who Lie About It

Crime Cover
Providence Police Interceptor and Cranston Mayor Allan Fung; sourced from Wikipedia, composited by Sam Howard

If we lived in a rational world, Allan Fung would’ve just disqualified himself from the governorship with this video where he states “Providence is not the same Providence I grew up in,” alluding to a recent spate of violence in the capital city, and then pinning the blame on Governor Raimondo. As former Journal reporter Mike Stanton points out:

According to Ted Nesi, Fung followed up this by blasting out an email claiming that the state has gotten more dangerous under Raimondo.

The problem is, that based on the data we have, this isn’t true. Here’s the data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) on Providence’s violent crime:

Violent Crime in Providence 1985-2014

And here’s property crime:

Property Crime in Providence 1985-2014

These are decreases of 47% and 49%, respectively. If you’re just looking at the crime rate (the incidence of crime per 100,000 people) then Providence was at an all-time low for crime in 2014, with a violent crime rate of 522.3 per 100,000 people and a property crime rate of 3840.1 per 100,000. That’s down from 1,132 per 100,000 and 8,744.6 per 100,000 in 1985.

You were statistically about half less likely to be a victim of crime in Providence in 2014 than you were when Allan Fung was 15. Providence was literally never safer since 1985.

We only have 1985-2014 for Providence. For the whole of Rhode Island, we have much more data, and there the numbers aren’t as dramatic, but still blow apart Fung’s falsities. Since Fung said “when I grew up” I’ve limited the data to 1970 to 2014 (the latest the UCR has data for).

Violent Crime in RI 1970-2014

Property Crime in Rhode Island 1970-2014

So, what do these charts tell us? Well, that violent crime in Rhode Island was last lower in 1971, when Fung was just 1 years old. Property crime hit its lowest recorded point in the 44 years between 1970 and 2014 in 2014.

But if you look at the crime rates, the story is a little different. In 2014, the violent crime rate in Rhode Island was 219.2 per 100,000 people. The only year lower in Fung’s lifetime is 1970, when it was 204.7 per 100,000 people. For property crime, the rate is 2,173.6 per 100,000 in 2014. To beat that, you have to go back to 1965, five years before Allan Fung was born. In 1970, the property crime rate was 4,064.1 per 100,000 people.

So basically, the most recent data tells us that Allan Fung is unlikely to recall a safer time to live in Rhode Island. For Gina Raimondo, born in 1971, 2014 was literally the safest year of her life.

Now, there are, of course, caveats. The data cuts off at 2014, when neither Raimondo nor Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza was yet elected. There’s some missing or incomparable data in 2011 and 2007 (respectively, though 2007 only applies to Providence).

But these sort of pernicious misrepresentations of crime negatively impact voters and policy. Even as things get better, voters get more worried, and long for “War on Crime” rhetoric. Call it a “Crimetown Syndrome” – the almost nostalgic view that Rhode Islanders have of our crime-ridden recent history. How else to explain that a WPRI/Providence Journal poll in 2014 (remember, one of the best years on record) found 90% of likely Providence voters were concerned about crime and yet Buddy Cianci, who presided over some of the worst crime rates in Providence history, was the candidate of those most likely to be “very concerned” about crime?

If you lived in Rhode Island in the 1960s, compared to then, yes, crime is much higher. But according to the 2010 Census, the median age in Rhode Island that year was 39.4, about Governor’s Raimondo age. That means that the majority of Rhode Islanders have lived through crime rates that have largely fallen in their lifetimes. The vast majority have seen crime fall throughout their adulthood. The perception of crime has no relation to the actual likelihood of it occurring.

That false perception has real consequences in terms of policy. Yesterday, the ACLU of Rhode Island released a report that found over the last 17 years, the Rhode Island General Assembly has added 170 new crimes and increased penalties for already existing ones. That means that even as people got statistically safer, the General Assembly got harsher on crime. As the ACLU of RI says, we need to get “smart on crime” — sadly, I’m afraid politicians have all the incentive in the world to posture about how tough they are on criminals as even actual crime diminishes.

In any decent world, Fung would be hounded by the press to explain himself for playing to such false fears. However, we live in the world where the leader of Fung’s party and the President of the United States says an average of 5.9 false or misleading statements a day. I fear we may be beyond any type of consequence for such actions.


I have a follow-up to this post with more updated data and some additional thoughts.

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