Facts don’t always match perception

trump_flicker_face_yessOriginally printed in the Batesville Daily Guard

On Tuesday, Feb. 7, during a round table with county sheriffs from across the U.S., President Trump made the following comment:

“I’d say that in a speech and everybody was surprised because the press doesn’t like to tell it like it is,” Trump claimed. “It wasn’t to their advantage to say that. The murder rate is the highest it’s been in I guess 45-47 years.”

Sounds like the streets are no longer safe and we’d better stay out of the cities.

But, the thing is, it’s not true.

And as a journalist, facts are important to me.

We actually have one of the lowest murder rates in the last half century.

In 2015, the murder rate was 4.9 per 100,000 people.

At this point 50 years ago, in 1957, the murder rate was 4 murders per 100,000 residents. Over the next decade and a half, that rate rose steadily to a high of 10.2 in 1980, when the U.S. was much whiter and had 100 million less people.

Then it began to drop, hitting 7.4 in 1996, 6.1 in 2006 and 4.4 in 2014. It 2015 it went up to 4.9. A significant increase, but not even half of what the rate was in 1980 and still well below 1996.

But that is less than half the murder rate of 1980. The raw number of homicides in America has actually declined from 19,645 in 1996 to 15,696 in 2015, even while the population has risen from 265 million in 1996 to 321 million in 2015.

Murder is just one of the crimes categorized as “violent” by the FBI when it takes crime data. Violent crime includes murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. The peak for violent crimes was 1991, where it was at 758 per 100,000. Now it has declined to 372.6 in 2015, less than half the peak.

Being close to 40, I am old enough to remember the “good old days” of the mid-’80s to mid-’90s when people were actually terrified of going into larger cities because of the potential to get lost in the wrong neighborhood. There was hysteria about wearing certain colors, with people being suspicious of “gangsters.” Our state capital, Little Rock, became particularly infamous at this time, largely due to an HBO documentary called “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock.”

But it wasn’t just the cities that experienced elevated violence during that time. There were also several high profile events involving white nationalists too, one of which happened in Arkansas in 1985 when a member of Covenant, the Sword and the Arm of the Lord, a white supremacist, killed an Arkansas police officer, resulting in a standoff in Mountain Home. Another police killer, Gordon Kahl, was killed in neighboring Lawrence County during a shootout in Smithville in 1983. Harrison still has a reputation for this kind of activity, being dubbed “the most racist town in America” in November 2016 by the U.K. newspaper The Daily Mirror.

Even before the 1980s, the U.S. could be a nasty place. Large cities were dominated by crime syndicates operated by mobsters. Blacks in the countryside lived in fear of being lynched. Women everywhere were ignored when it came to their own spouses visiting violence upon them.

Nowadays, people actually walk on the sidewalks of downtown Little Rock, much like America’s other large cities. It’s still one of America’s most dangerous cities statistically speaking, but the perception has changed from one where people think that random strangers will be targeted for violence into one that they see the majority of violence there as being between people who know each other. Blacks can make stops in small rural towns without having to worry about “being out by sundown” as the old saying went.

All changes for the better, which leads us back where we started.

Did Trump make the claim, knowing it wasn’t true? Did he just believe what he said because he wasn’t familiar with the facts? Does he just say whatever strikes him at the moment as true?

Heck, I don’t know, I’m not a mind reader.

The only thing that really matters is that what he said is demonstratively false when one looks at statistics and evidence.

But, why does it matter?

Because facts and evidence is what our leaders are supposed to make their judgements based upon, not beliefs. If we believe that people are dying left and right, we’re going to demand that our leaders act accordingly, which leads to what is essentially taking a sledgehammer to swat a fly. On the flip-side, when we believe something is “not a big deal” we act accordingly to that too, like using spitballs to fight off bombers.

The ripple effects of that means spending too much on something, or too little. Making too few rules or too many. Who is friend and who is foe.

Without facts, we can’t find the best spot to draw the line. If we go by belief, we can essentially draw the line where ever we want.

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