Stats so far from 2017 show that violent crimes in America's major cities are generally dropping again after a brief, sharp uptick. Some individual cities are still in bad shape, but the broad trend is looking up.
But Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not land his job in President Donald Trump's administration by assuring the populace that the country is generally a safe place to live. And that's certainly not the narrative Trump used to get elected.
So Sessions is weaving a different story as he continues his attacks on sanctuary cities and criminal justice reform. Speaking before federal law enforcement officials in Portland, Oregon, this week, he refused to make even the slightest adjustments to his rhetoric:
After decreasing for over 20 years because of the hard but necessary work our country started in the 1980s, violent crime is back. The murder rate surged nearly 11 percent nationwide in 2015—the largest increase since 1968. Per capita homicide rates are up in 27 of our 35 largest cities.
And Portland is not immune to these problems. Between 2013 and 2015, the city saw an increase in homicides of more than 140 percent. In 2015, Portland Police received more than 180 calls related to gangs, including shootings, stabbings, and assaults—the highest number since they began recording that number nearly 20 years ago, and almost double the count from 2014.
Note that we're about three-quarters of the way through 2017, and he's still using numbers from 2015.
Also—speaking as someone who has done a lot of crime stat analysis over the years—consider it a red flag whenever you see seemingly outrageously high percentage changes showing either increases and declines. What that often means is that the flat numbers are actually very low, so when those changes are presented as percentages, they seem very large. If a city has two murders one year and then four murders the next year, that's a 100 percent increase in the murder rate. That does not, however, indicate a crime wave.
The actual numbers in Portland here don't support Sessions' fearmongering. In 2013, the city had its lowest number of homicides in decades: 16. That number doubled to 32 over the course of two years. That's certainly a cause for concern, but it's an increase in a number that was very low; presenting it as a percentage makes it seem much more alarming than it actually is. Even then, Sessions got the percentage wrong by calling it a 140 percent increase.
Also, as The Portland Mercury notes, homicides for 2016 dropped back down to 16, the same level they were back in 2013. The crime spike in 2015 looks more like an anomaly than a dangerous new trend.
But the fearmongering is necessary to sell the Sessions/Trump agenda of attacking sanctuary cities—such as Portland—for declining to help the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) detain and deport immigrants here illegally. Here's Sessions again:
When federal immigration authorities learn that this criminal alien is in a jurisdiction's custody, our ICE officers issue a detainer request accompanied by a civil arrest warrant and ask the city to either notify them before they release the criminal or to hold the criminal alien long enough to transfer him to federal custody in a safe setting.
But political leaders have directed state and local officers to refuse these requests. Cooperation has been a key element in informed crime fighting for decades.
The result is that police are forced to release the criminal alien back into the community without regard to the seriousness of his crimes or the length of his rap sheet. Think about that: Police may be forced to release pedophiles, rapists, murderers, drug dealers, and arsonists back into the communities where they had no right to be in the first place. They should according to law and common sense be processed and deported.
This is a tremendously misleading representation of what actually happens, and Sessions is leaning heavily on a couple of really bad cases to suggest that this is commonplace. In reality, sanctuary cities usually do cooperate with DHS in exactly these circumstances.
Sessions also urged Gov. Jerry Brown not to sign a bill essentially making California a "sanctuary state" where local police are forbidden from assisting DHS in deportations. But the bill specifically permits police to work with DHS to deport immigrants when the immigrants have been convicted of a whole host of crimes, including each and every crime Sessions lists above.
What Sessions really seems to want is for sanctuary cities to cooperate with detainer requests on demand, period, no questions asked. Yet local law enforcement officers are not federal immigration officials. Local police do not have the authority to simply detain people without warrants or arresting them, even if they suspect they're in the country illegally.
According to The Oregonian, Sessions apparently "refused to acknowledge" a federal magistrate's ruling in Oregon holding a county legally liable for continuing to detain an inmate past her release date as federal immigration officials investigated her citizenship status. When even the attorney general doesn't seem interested in grasping that local police simply do not have the authority to hold people for the feds on demand, we have a problem. It's hard enough to get the police themselves to understand that they cannot simply detain people.
Read Sessions' speech here.