Americans are hopelessly confused about big-city crime

Americans think New York is more dangerous than New Orleans, even though the Crescent City’s homicide rate is 12 times higher this year. Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents rank Washington, D.C., as one of the country’s safer big cities, above cities like Miami, where the homicide rate is much lower. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents see Seattle as ominously dangerous, even though Houston has twice the homicide rate so far this year.

Americans are worried about crime ahead of the 2024 elections, but few have an accurate sense of the problem, according to a Times review of crime data and a recent Gallup poll that asked adults to judge whether 16 major cities are safe places to live or visit.

Los Angeles, which has the fifth lowest homicide rate so far this year among the 16 cities in the survey, was ranked as the third most dangerous. Forty-one percent of Americans described L.A. as a safe place to live or visit, the highest number Gallup has ever recorded for the city.

L.A.’s results showed that partisanship now plays a huge role in Americans’ perceptions of crime and safety. Sixty-four percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents ranked L.A. safe, while only 21% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents gave it the all-clear, the biggest gap in the poll. The gap between the two coalitions’ assessments of cities in the survey was 29 points on average. That’s new: Political affiliation barely affected the results in 2006, the last time Gallup asked Americans about big-city safety.

“People are bad at perceiving crime rates,” said Jeff Asher, a crime data analyst and consultant who runs a widely used website. “They’re not good judges of what is or what is not safe in another city.”

Assessing cities’ safety is tricky. Homicide rates spiked across the country during the pandemic and have since fallen, but are still likely to be higher this year than they were in 2019. Auto theft is surging nationally, but some cities, including Los Angeles, are experiencing a small decline. And rates for almost all types of crime have fallen since the early 1990s.

Voters’ opinions probably are being informed by partisanship, media portrayals — including an increase in neighborhood websites and email listservs — and factors such as public homelessness, drug use, shoplifting and other signs of disorder, policy and political experts said.

Asher called the Gallup survey “the bane of my existence.” The results made so little sense to him that he abandoned a column he tried to write on the subject. Although he tracks crime closely, he says it is nearly impossible to fully characterize national trends on safety in real time, in part because FBI data on violent crime can lag years behind and because it is difficult to define which offenses detract most from community security.

Cities such as Miami and Dallas that are in states with Republican governors appeared to get a boost in their reputations for safety compared with their record, while Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, which are in states with Democratic governors, took a hit, according to Anna Harvey, a political scientist and founder and director of the Public Safety Lab at New York University.

Republicans have painted Democratic-run cities as dens of crime and disorder since at least the 1960s. Candidates at the Republican presidential primary debate last month talked over one another to decry “hollowed-out cities,” a “national identity crisis” and Democrats who have been “talking about defunding the police for the last five years.”

Republican criticisms of Democratic big-city leaders have been bolstered by tech barons such as Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, who have couched safety concerns as part of a broader argument against the “woke orientation of certain cities, their ungovernability,” said Richard Florida, a University of Toronto professor who has written extensively about trends in cities.

GOP Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has tried to channel that energy in his presidential run, claiming in a recent video he posted from San Francisco that he saw people defecating and using crack cocaine and other drugs on the street, and warning of a “collapse” resulting from “leftist policies.” Fox News has reinforced those impressions with frequent segments on homelessness and drugs in big cities on the West Coast.

“The political rhetoric is public nuisance crimes,” Harvey said. “That may not be correlated with where the most serious violent crime is happening.”

Yet voters do have cause for concern, she and others say. Experts do not yet know whether homicide rates will continue to fall. Localized problems, including carjackings in New Orleans, rattle entire communities. Violent crimes, which appear to be falling, are still more common than they were in 2019, before the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the resulting protests, according to a July study by the Council on Criminal Justice.

Harvey said Democrats should “come out swinging” in places where homicide and other violent crimes have subsided, such as Boston, L.A., Seattle and San Francisco, and be more vocal that crime in Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia represents “a serious policy problem” that “needs serious policies.”

“Just ignoring it or trying to change the subject is not going to be an effective tactic,” she said.

Democrats acknowledge that the public’s worries about crime are likely to hurt them more than they hurt the GOP, given that Democrats control the White House and most big-city governments. Only 35% of people in an NPR/Marist survey conducted in March said President Biden was doing a good job handling crime, a lower mark than his already low approval rating. He earned similarly poor marks from people of color and those under 45, voters he needs to motivate if he wants to win reelection.

“What you’ve got to do is say, ‘Hey, I know it’s a serious issue and here’s what I’ve done,’” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who has worked for Biden, pointing to a mayor’s work in hiring and recruiting police and taking guns off the street as examples.

Republicans are not about to let up. Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster, pointed to an effort by residents in the higher-income Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta earlier this year to secede from the city, which he said was driven by fear of crime.

Georgia has become a crucial swing state in presidential elections and, in recent elections, for control of the Senate. Ayres argues that that catapults the issue into national importance, and he scoffs at those who say his party is overhyping it.

“Tell that to the people who are scared to go shopping at Lenox mall in Buckhead,” he said. “They are not making that up. And having some economist or political analyst downplay their fear is a good way to whistle past the graveyard for Democratic candidates.”