Opinion: Violent Crime Went Up — Probably

By John Hood

RALEIGH — Did violent crime go up in North Carolina last year? I think the answer is yes, though changes in the way the Federal Bureau of Investigation collects and aggregates crime data make it hard to say for sure.

In 2020, 39,880 violent crimes were reported to the FBI. In 2021, that figure was 41,996 violent crimes, an increase of 5.3%. Our state’s population certainly didn’t grow by that much in 2021, thus our crime rate must have gone up. Right?

Probably — but there is a wrinkle here. The FBI is in the process of transitioning to a new process called the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). This is a good idea. By collecting and presenting more specific information about each reported crime, the NIBRS is superior to its predecessor.

Alas, the transition couldn’t happen overnight. Some jurisdictions don’t yet submit their crime data in NIBRS format. So when the FBI put out its 2021 crime report last week, big chunks of data from, say, New York City and much of California and Florida weren’t included. The report relied on estimation much more than usual.

If you saw last week’s national headlines, you know the results were rather confusing. According to the FBI’s estimates, overall rates of violent and property crime in the United States dipped in 2021 while murders rose 4%. Due to all the missing data, however, these estimates have large margins of error. Perhaps America’s violent crime actually tracked up slightly. Perhaps murders tracked down. Nobody really knows.

As for North Carolina, our crime statistics for 2021 were not skewed by gobs of missing data. Precisely 387 of our localities used the NIBRS successfully, and they account for 93% of the state’s population. But the number of participating localities went up slightly from 2020, when 377 jurisdictions accounting for 90% of the population used the system. This increase in reporting localities is an unlikely explanation for a 5.3% increase in reported crimes, but it’s not impossible.

For North Carolinians concerned about the security of their persons and property — and for North Carolina politicians concerned about the effects of the crime issue on their upcoming elections — no reading of the available evidence is comforting. Even if the problem didn’t worsen in 2021, it was bad enough already.

From the early 1990s to the mid 2010s, our violent-crime rate typically fell every year, often significantly. The issue never entirely receded from public consciousness, to be sure, but the fact that North Carolina had become a much safer place to live and work was widely understood and celebrated (though the political class never really agreed on why the crime rate dropped).

By 2014, the rate was 329 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, about half the rate of 1991. Alas, the trend lines then reversed. By 2020 violent crime was up 27%, to 419 per 100,000. For the reasons explained above, the FBI released no official estimate for 2021. Even under the (unlikely) best-case scenario in which it didn’t change much, North Carolinians still have good reason to be concerned.

And they are. In the latest statewide poll by High Point University, voters were asked to assess the importance of 16 policy issues in North Carolina. Crime was one of just six issues that at least 70% of respondents rated as “very important.” The others were inflation, jobs, education, health care, and school safety. On inflation, jobs, and crime, North Carolina voters trusted Republicans more than Democrats. On the other three issues, Democrats enjoyed a small-to-moderate edge.

That’s why, in this final stretch of the midterm elections, you’re seeing so many ads from Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups talking about issues such as education (and abortion, though its salience seems to have faded a bit). And it’s why you’re seeing so many ads from Republicans and Republican-leaning groups talking about food prices, gas prices, and crime.

Did the latter problem truly get worse last year? In a political sense, it doesn’t really matter.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (FolkloreCycle.com).