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'Frenzied Narrative' Of Rising Crime Was Key Issue in 2022 Campaigns

The specter of rising crime became become a central point of the 2022 midterm elections. It was on heavy rotation in Republican campaign ads, and nightly it was the topic de jour on Fox News. Even much of the mainstream media is covering crime as though the U.S. is in the middle of some kind of crisis, accepting the political narrative — especially, but not exclusively, the Republican narrative.

Is there actually a crime wave? The FBI crime stats from 2021 show that, "the big takeaways were crime is up on some measures and it's down on others," says Insha Rahman of the Vera Institute of Justice, NPR reports.

However, because of a long-planned change in reporting standards, most cities did not report their 2021 crime numbers to the FBI. "It's turned our crime data into this sort of giant black hole I don't think we'll ever actually be able to undo," says Fordham University law Prof. John Pfaff. "I think 2021 will always just be a giant gap in our narrative."

"A big mistake we make with crime narratives is the effort to tell a narrative," Pfaff says. "Crime is deeply local."

Often, stories about crime trends are based on increments of time that are statistically meaningless.

"Both journalists and elected officials have a habit of comparing crime today to crime last year," says Robert Vargas, a sociologist at the University of Chicago. "There's absolutely no systemic or scientifically informed way of thinking about crime trends" in this short term way.

Rena Karefa-Johnson of the advocacy group Fwd.Us says, ".It is often lost that there are certain crimes like property crimes that are actually at historic lows. For the crimes like gun homicide that have increased and spiked and that we really need to focus on, we're still not talking about rates anywhere near the historic highs of the nineties."

"People were 80% less likely to be a victim of violent crime in 2021 compared to 1993," she says.

What is rising is the frenzied narrative around rising crime.

In the Wisconsin senate race the Fraternal Order of Police, alongside a majority of sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies, have thrown their political weight behind the incumbent, "tough-on-crime" Republican Ron Johnson. Johnson has called the criminal Jan. 6th attack on the Capitol "a peaceful protest."

In campaign ads against his Democratic challenger, Mandela Barnes. a narrator asks the viewer, "do you feel safe?' while ominous music thumps in the background.

"Mandela Barnes would eliminate cash bail, setting accused criminals free into the community before trial, even with shootings, robberies, carjackings, violent attacks on our police. More than 300 murders last year alone. Yet Barnes has even supported defunding the police. Mandela Barnes, he stands with them, not us."

The not so subtle suggestion was that Barnes, who is Black, stands with the images of the alleged criminals in the ad, all of whom are also Black.

The ad not only attacks Barnes, but also bail reform. It's been a popular target of the right, in lockstep with police, claiming that it will let violent suspects — almost always depicted as Black and brown — out onto the street. That's despite a lack of evidence that shows a connection between bail reform and increased crime.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Johnson led Barnes by only 27,000 votes of more than 2.6 million ballots.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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