The 2015 crime wave that wasn’t

Both the FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) showed broad-based USA crime rate declines in 2015. The UCR includes all crimes recorded by law enforcement agencies and reported to the FBI. The NCVS estimates total crimes against households and persons ages 12 or older based on survey questions about crimes that were reported and not reported to police.


The 2015 NCVS property crime rate (household burglary, motor vehicle theft, and other theft) was down 6.3% from 2014, and the lowest property crime rate ever recorded in NCVS data that goes back to 1973. The 2015 NCVS violent crime rate (sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault) was down 7.5% from 2014, and the lowest NCVS violent crime rate ever recorded.

The 2015 UCR burglary rate (including residential and commercial burglaries) was down 8.5% from 2014, and the lowest burglary rate ever recorded in UCR data that goes back to 1960.

The 2014 UCR motor vehicle theft rate was the lowest rate since 1962. The 2015 rate was up 2.2% from 2014, but still the second lowest motor vehicle theft rate since 1963.

The 2015 UCR larceny-theft rate (excluding petty theft and motor vehicle theft) was down 2.5% from 2014, and the lowest larceny-theft rate since 1968.

The 2015 UCR property crime rate (burglary, motor vehicle theft, and larceny-theft) was down 3.4% from 2014, and the lowest property crime rate since 1966. This is roughly consistent with the NCVS data showing the property crime rate falling 6.3% in 2015 to a record low.

The UCR violent crime rate (murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) should be roughly consistent with the NCVS serious violent crime rate (sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault), but the UCR violent crime rate increased 3.0% in 2015 as the NCVS serious violent crime rate fell 11.7%. This kind of divergence can result from changes in the percent of NCVS crimes reported to police, changes in police crime recording practices, and random NCVS sample variation. About 30% of UCR violent crimes are robberies and 60% are aggravated assaults, and robberies and aggravated assaults also account for about 90% of NCVS serious violent crime, so these two crime categories must be examined further to understand the 2015 divergence in UCR and NCVS serious violent crime trends.

The robbery rate reported in the 2014 UCR was 102.2 per 100,000 residents, the lowest rate since 1966. The 2015 robbery rate was 101.9 per 100,000 residents, but that was not a new record low because the 2015 UCR revised the 2014 robbery rate down to 101.3 per 100,000 residents. That revision made the 2015 robbery rate the second lowest robbery rate since 1966 (at least until we see if it is revised lower next year). NCVS total robberies were down 12.9% in 2015, and NCVS robberies reported to police were down 11.6%. NCVS reported robberies declined less than NCVS total robberies because there was a small increase in the percent of NCVS robbery victims who said they reported that crime to police.

The 2014 UCR aggravated assault rate was the lowest since 1974. The 2015 UCR aggravated assault rate was up 3.8% from 2014, but still lower than in any year from 1977 through 2012. NCVS total aggravated assaults were down 25.2% in 2015, and NCVS aggravated assaults reported to police were down 20.7%. NCVS reported aggravated assaults declined less than NCVS total aggravated assaults because there was an increase in the percent of NCVS aggravated assault victims who reported that crime to police.

The percent of robberies and aggravated assaults that NCVS victims said they reported to the police increased from 55% in 1993-1999, to 59% in 2000-2009, and 62% in 2010-2015. This means that declines in UCR robbery and aggravated assault rates understate the total violent crime decline since 1993 because part of the total decline was offset by an increase in the percent of crimes reported to police.

The percent of NCVS reported robberies and aggravated assaults that were recorded in FBI UCR data was less than 74% in 1993-1999, but rose to an average of 100% for robberies and 115% for aggravated assaults in 2000-2009. The low percent of NCVS reported robberies and aggravated assaults recorded in 1990s UCR data was likely due to recordkeeping problems before widespread use of computers. NCVS random variation could also explain differences of plus or minus 10% or even 20% in any single year, but the percent of NCVS reported aggravated assaults recorded in UCR data rose from 115% in 2000-2009, to 122% in 2010-14, and 151% in 2015. The news media has sometimes alleged that police understate serious crime by recording aggravated assaults as less serious simple assaults, but comparing UCR and NCVS trends suggest the opposite problem today – excessive UCR recording of aggravated assaults. NCVS random variation is not a plausible explanation for a 20.7% decline in 2015 NCVS reported aggravated assaults when UCR data show a 3.8% increase, with 2015 UCR aggravated assaults exceeding NCVS reported aggravated assaults by 51%.

Aggravated assault is defined as an assault with a lethal weapon and/or with the intent to cause serious injury. There is obviously some subjectivity in the definition of “serious” injury and the definition of “weapon” (which could include any blunt instrument), and aggravated assault can also include just brandishing a weapon. The fact that NCVS victims are reporting aggravated assaults far below UCR recorded aggravated assaults suggests that police have become far more expansive than crime victims are when it comes to defining aggravated assault, perhaps to protect against allegations that the police undercount serious violent crime.

In summary, the UCR and NCVS data show consistent ongoing declines and record lows in the property crime rate in 2015. For robberies, the second largest violent crime category, the UCR data show that the 2015 rate was virtually unchanged from the record low in 2014, and the NCVS data show an ongoing decline in the robbery rate. For aggravated assault, the largest violent crime category, the 2015 NCVS data show a huge 25.2% decline in total aggravated assaults and a 20.7% decline in aggravated assaults reported to police, but 2015 UCR data show that police recorded an increase in aggravated assaults to a level exceeding NCVS reported aggravated assaults by 51%. This implausible UCR aggravated assault data is the flimsy basis for widely reported claims that the violent crime rate increased in 2015. More reckless claims about a broader “crime wave” are not even supported by UCR data that clearly show a decline in property crime that far exceeded the UCR increase in violent crime.

The UCR rape rate in 2013 was the lowest rate since 1973. The UCR and the NCVS show an increase in rapes in 2015, but rape data are not comparable to prior years since the FBI expanded the definition of after 2013.

The UCR murder rate in 2013 was 4.52 per 100,000, the lowest rate ever recorded in FBI data going back to 1960. The UCR murder rate in 2014 set a new record low at 4.44 per 100,000. The news media largely ignored those record low murder rates, but there was extensive reporting about an increase in murders in 2015. The most reckless reporting highlighted individual cities with especially large one year increases in murders, but the 2015 UCR did show a nationwide increase of 0.44 per 100,000, from 4.44 in 2014 to 4.88 in 2015. The news media has called this the largest year-over-year increase in the murder rate since the 1960s, but that is not correct. The murder rate increased by 0.68 per 100,000 in 1990, and by 0.61 in 1986, 0.47 in 1980, 0.78 in 1979, 0.75 in 1971, and 0.54 in 1970. The 2015 murder rate increase was the largest percent increase since 1968, but that percent change is relative to the record low in 2014. Larger absolute increases in the murder rate in 1990, 1986, 1980, 1979, 1971, and 1970 look smaller as year-over-year percent changes because the prior year murder rates were much higher than the record low 2014 rate. Even after the 2015 increase, the 2015 murder rate was still lower than it was in 1960, lower than it was in any year from 1964 through 2012, and just about half of the average murder rate from 1969-1995.

In 2015, murders accounted for just 1% of UCR violent crimes, and there were more than 500 property crimes recorded for every murder. Those who claim that we are seeing a new crime wave based on the murder rate increase in 2015 are not telling you about their crime analysis: They are telling you about their crime agenda.

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