Alternative fact of the week: Murder 1, Accuracy 0
Feb 09, 2017 | 12:42 PM
During an appearance before the Tribune Editorial Board in 2015, Donald Trump addressed Chicago crime, saying "tough cookies" are needed to combat it. (Brian Ernst/Chicago Tribune)
It's been a big week for blatant falsehoods coming out of the White House, from the allegations of a media conspiracy not to report terrorism attacks to President Donald Trump's claim that Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal had misrepresented Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch's observation that he found Mr. Trump's criticisms of a federal judge "disheartening" and "demoralizing," when Judge Gorsuch's own spokesman confirmed their accuracy. But none strikes closer to home for Baltimoreans than the president's bogus observation — to a group of sheriffs no less — that the U.S. is suffering from the highest murder rate in 47 years.
"The murder rate in our country is the highest it's been in 47 years, right?" President Trump said Tuesday to representatives of the National Sheriffs' Association. "Did you know that? Forty-seven years. I used to use that — I'd say that in a speech and everybody was surprised, because the press doesn't tell it like it is. It wasn't to their advantage to say that. But the murder rate is the highest it's been in, I guess, from 45 to 47 years."
It isn't, of course. It's not even close — and the only surprise is that one of those law enforcement officers didn't leap up to correct him on the spot. Not only has the murder rate generally been in decline for a quarter-century in the United States, the number of murders has actually fallen as the population has risen. On the national level, the only uptick was between 2014 and 2015 when the rate went from 4.4 per 100,000 people to 4.9, but that's hardly on par with historical levels; it hit 7.4 as recently as 1996.
What's especially alarming about this particular prevarication is that it could cause Americans to lose sight of a much more specific problem with violent crime — the manner in which a few cities, Baltimore prominent among them, have become virtual war zones in certain high-crime neighborhoods. The new year in Charm City has so far produced a greater than one-a-day homicide rate. And that pace represents a potential uptick from 2015 which did, indeed, set the record for the city's deadliest murder rate per capita with 344 killings.
See the difference, Mr. President? The nation's overall murder rate is much improved while Baltimore's is threatening to go off the charts. It's not that violent crime in America is out of control. The problem is much more specific. That's why Mayor Catherine Pugh is fretting that existing crime-fighting strategies aren't working and is huddling with experts from the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Bloomberg Philanthropies; the city needs to come up with a new, more effective approach, and fast.
We have observed the many contributing factors before — the city's high concentration of poverty, its drug addiction epidemic, the lack of entry-level jobs, the loss of trust in a police department tarnished by the Freddie Gray case and other incidents of excessive force, its poor performing schools and its stark divisions by race and income. These are problems more complex than can be solved merely putting 100 more police officers on the street, as Police Commissioner Kevin Davis last month vowed to do.
Having someone in the White House who can't seem to understand what's going on in cities like Baltimore — and, in fact, continues to repeat the same tired and obvious falsehoods about murder rates that he offered during the campaign — is not only unhelpful, it's counterproductive. Nationwide, the communities with the highest violent crime rates tend to have the highest concentrations of poverty. That's a real fact. Mr. Trump has said he wants to rebuild America's inner cities. We'd love to hear a plan for that, not more sweeping falsehoods about the nation's murder rate.