Sunday Commentary: Bad Reporting by the Media is Largely Driving the Crime Panic

A Walgreens store in San Francisco on Oct. 12, 2020.  Photo by Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images.

By David M. Greenwald

Earlier this week a very telling USA Today poll came out finding that a majority of Americans—57 percent—say “there is more violent crime now in the U.S. compared to 30 years ago,” while just 12 percent say less and 11 percent say the same.   That is not even close to being accurate.

As Chris Geidner tweeted, “The problem is that the irresponsible reporting leads to the belief that crime is at all-time highs, which leads to more coverage, which leads to government overreaction, and we’re back at mass criminalization.”

Some crime is going up with respect to the last few years, which were at 60-year lows.  Murders, for instance, are up over the past few years, but even those pale in comparison to where things were in 1991 (30 years ago).

It is actually a little difficult to evaluate what is actually happening on the ground.  As we have noted previously, in places like San Francisco, surges in things like the murder rate have been blamed on local policies by DA Chesa Boudin.

This despite the fact that murder rates are going up across the board—in places with Republican mayors and Democratic mayors, and in places with progressive DAs and more traditional ones.

Evaluating changes in real time are tricky, especially in a complex system with multiple variables.  Is some of this a factor of the pandemic, and the crimes that are going up are related to that—while the crimes that are going down are perhaps related to the fact that people were home and businesses were closed?  We’ll have to see what happens in the coming years.

San Francisco is a fascinating study.  In recent weeks we have had the announcement by Target that they are closing stores early, blaming high rates of shoplifting.  Walgreens and other retail is closing altogether.

But when I talked with DA Chesa Boudin he said that “we certainly haven’t seen an increase in reported thefts.”

He pointed out, “The data is petty clear.”

If we look at the period from June 13 to July 4 over the last 4 years and compare the total number of thefts reported in SF (just that three-week window since reopening and then the same date range over prior years), you see that reported thefts have ticked up slightly over last year at this time, but are well down from what it was in 2019 and 2018.

There were 2746 reported thefts this year from June 13 to July 4.  That’s up from 2657 last year (when stores were more likely to be closed), but way down from 3596 in 2019 and 3783 in 2018.

One of the few stories that did a deeper diver was a June 25 San Francisco Chronicle article: “A viral video has everyone talking about San Francisco’s ‘shoplifting surge.’ But is it real?”

The video—which I have seen—shows a man shoving items at a Walgreens into a garbage bag and biking out as customers filmed it and a security guard made a futile swipe.

Even the NY Times is guilty of playing on the perception of a spike, with an article in the New York Times titled “San Francisco’s Shoplifting Surge.”

But as Susie Neilson reported, “Data from the San Francisco Police Department suggests these reports may be overblown. According to the data, overall shoplifting incidents reported to the police are below their levels before the start of the pandemic. And before that, shoplifting rates had been decreasing more or less steadily since the 1980s.”

She argues, “The data shows that shoplifting rates dipped at the start of the pandemic, when many stores shut down, and have since recovered to just below pre-pandemic levels.”

So why are retail markets closing in San Francisco?  It may not be due to a rise in crime at all.  One telling point that Chesa Boudin made was that San Francisco Police only solve about three percent of thefts.  The San Francisco Chronicle in the same article showed that, while shoplifting incidents are down overall, the percentage of cases that ended up with a citation or arrest have plummeted from nearly 40 percent in 2018 to just under 15 percent in 2021.

Indeed, PPIC found that San Francisco has the lowest arrest rate of any police department in California.

If that’s true, the problem might not be prosecution but, rather, police staffing.

“That answer does speak to staffing. I mean it’s direct and this is not an excuse, this is a reality. In order for us to be at these locations when these things happen, the officers have to have time to be there,” explained San Francisco Police Chief William Scott.

But even so, the data do not agree with the news coverage and public perception.

And that’s not just a local issue.

David Menschel, an attorney and funder of progressive causes, believes this reflects “a massive failure of American journalism.”

Washington Post Columnist Radley Balko tweeted, “Talk to older people. They think the cities are Hobbesian hellscapes.”

But what is reality?

Balko points out, some perspective is in order.  In 2020, New York City had 462 murders, which was up from 311 in 2019.  That is a 33 percent increase.

“Seems bad,” he says.  But, “It’s still the 8th fewest since 1960. And for about 25 years, NYC averaged over 1,500.”

That means that murders are not only at low rates, they are still at only one-quarter to one-third of what they were at the peak.

And he cited data that show, “There are signs that as we return to normal life, the surge in homicides/shootings may be slowing down.”  A July 6 story in the NY Media found, “June crime statistics show shootings and murders in New York City were down last month year-over-year, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea announced Tuesday.

“Shooting incidents in the city were down 20% in June. Murder was down 23% compared to the same month a year ago. And the number of shooting victims was down 26% over last June.”

That fits, at least preliminarily, with the thesis that the pandemic might have been driving some of the increase in murders.

That is further lending to the notion that crime coverage rather than crime might be driving this.  On July 9, Law Professor John Pfaff pointed out: “as this recent WaPo poll shows, ppl aren’t scared so much for THEMSELVES, but abt… ‘over there.’”

He notes that “fear about ‘over there’–where the ppl don’t look like you, and you don’t bear the costs–leads to EVEN WORSE policy, too often.”

But the “over there” phenomenon suggests, as Pfaff tweets, “the point is that crime coverage is scaring ppl, and scaring ppl in an abstract way, and thus in a way that will lead the relatively unaffected to demand policies that aren’t great FOR THE MOST IMPACTED.”

Reacting in a rapidly changing environment does not lend itself toward solid policy.  It leads to overreaction and overcorrection.  We will have a much better sense of the trends by the end of the year, as life adjusts back to a more open society.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Alan Miller

    Sure there is some bad reporting, but even if one believes your arguments, which I don’t, perception is reality. You have lost this battle. In fact there never was a battle – you will be seen briefly as an annoying fungus on the toe of your foe, easily extinguished with an anti-fungal.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Love it… compose once, on a thread, then Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V for another… meant as respect for a cool concept… works well when some of the underlying issues are the same… efficient!  Like!

    2. Keith Olsen

      Yes Alan, perception is reality.  I remember this conversation I had with David, it looks like he agrees:

      Keith Olsen May 31, 2020 at 4:21 pm
      What point, that people think Trump is racist towards blacks without any proof?
      Evidence please.

      Report comment

      David Greenwald Post authorMay 31, 2020 at 4:23 pm
      The context of this discussion was your comment that things were quiet and Ron Glick pointing out that you are mistaken – in part because of the factors I listed. The perception is sufficient to prove the initial point I was making. I don’t need to convince you of anything to establish that point.


  2. Ron Oertel

    It’s pretty simple, really.

    If you lock-up those who are committing crimes, they won’t be doing so (outside of prison), anymore.

    And if you don’t (or you let them out prematurely), they will be. (That’s an evidenced-based statement.)

    There are ultimately only a relatively small percentage of people committing most of the crimes. Engaging in a disproportionate share of crime, repeatedly.

    So unless some massive (presumably “successful”) systemic change occurs (beyond not imprisoning people), that’s what we’re left with.

  3. Ron Oertel

    If you really want to talk about “dishonest reporting” in regard to crime, I’d suggest examining how “hate crimes” have been reported, lately.  (The actual amount, how such crimes are classified/prosecuted, “who” is committing those crimes – or is implied to be doing so, and “who” is responsible for it).

    A thick stew of blatant political motivations, ultimately ignoring a real problem. You’d truly have to be committed to the cause, to believe in the honesty of reporting regarding that.

    Oh, but Boudin is committed to that one “cause”, isn’t he? Well, it’s good to know that there’s at least one category of crime that he’s concerned with. 🙂 The problem is that he’s not always convincing those who have been actual victims of it.

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