By Rory Fleming
The way crime has been portrayed in mainstream and right-wing media isn’t about an increase in murder, it’s about vibes.
A new report from Third Way, a think tank that has been described as centrist but liberal, breaks down the homicide spike by state. Its analysis shows how states that went for Trump in 2020 accounted for eight of the ten highest murder rates. Furthermore, states that Trump won that year had a 40 percent higher murder rate versus states that voted for Biden.
This trend also broadly goes down to the city level, despite notable exceptions like Chicago and Houston, which suffer from unusually high homicide rates.
The city breakdowns Third Way includes should be of particular interest to Californians. Tulsa and Oklahoma City, the only two major cities in the state with the third-highest incarceration rate in the nation (Oklahoma), have almost double the murder rate of Los Angeles. Bakersfield and Fresno “each have Republican mayors and murder rates far higher than either San Francisco or Los Angeles,” the report finds. Jacksonville, Florida, a deeply conservative city with a GOP mayor, “had 128 more murders in 2020” than San Francisco. They have roughly the same population.
The report casts the differences between these cities in terms of Republican versus Democrat, Trump versus Biden. But there is another way to think about this. Many media pundits and criminal justice commentators attribute crime rates to the performance and policies of district attorneys.
If they are right, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is doing an objectively better job than Kern County (Bakersfield) District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer and Fresno DA Lisa Smittcamp, who are both conservative “tough on crime” Republicans. The effect is enhanced by the fact that the San Francisco Police Department has an openly hostile relationship with Boudin and a terrible clearance rate for homicide. By contrast, Zimmer and Smittcamp both have cozy relationships with the police, receiving endorsements by their organizations.
The same story is roughly true of Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón, despite hysterical media coverage.
Unlike Boudin, Gascón took office in 2021. That year, LA saw a slightly higher number of homicides than the year before. But the same is true in Kern County, which has held the state’s highest murder rate since 2016. (Fresno County’s high homicide count stayed the same.)
The local politicians in these conservative California counties know they are sitting ducks, extremely vulnerable to truthful attacks that they are ineffective on public safety. In fact, when a CalMatters reporter tried to call “Bakersfield mayor and all five Kern County supervisors” for insights on the local crime issue, none of them returned his calls.
However, that reporter did not even try to contact DA Smittcamp. Therein lies part of the problem. In Kern County, Smittcamp is the only elected Kern County official, besides the sheriff, who works in a pure public safety role. The Bakersfield mayor and all five Kern County supervisors can indirectly affect crime rates through top-down mandates, but none of them are in the streets arresting people or putting them away in court.
Even judges, the people who sentence criminals, handle both civil and criminal cases in California; thus, only a percentage of their jobs could be said to be in the public safety sector, though whether judges play or should play a public safety role at all is hotly debated within the profession. (This 2007 article from retired Portland, Oregon Judge Michael H. Marcus encapsulates the intellectual war between American judges on whether the purpose of sentencing is vengeance, public safety, or a bit of both.)
While the mainstream media often insinuates DAs are responsible for crime rates, experts know that what a DA says or does has very little impact on local homicide rates. Granted, this does not have to be the case. If a DA decided to never prosecute murder, of course, the murder rate would likely increase. But no DA does that. Policing, on the other hand, and in particular how cities are policed, seems to directly impact murder rates.
If critics of DAs like Gascón and Boudin were truly concerned with public safety, they would call DAs like Smittcamp in Kern County and Zimmer in Fresno and demand answers. But they won’t. These critics are more concerned with DA decorum—how a DA should speak and act—than actual results. Unfortunately, that’s just politics.
Rory Fleming is a writer and attorney