“So let’s talk about the facts,” Joy Hofmeister, the Democratic candidate for governor in Oklahoma, said during a debate Wednesday. “The fact is, the rates of violent crime are higher in Oklahoma —”
“It’s not true,” incumbent Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) interjected.
“— under your watch,” Hofmeister continued — with Stitt interjecting again, “It’s not true” — “than in New York and California. That’s a fact.”
The moderator promised that the claim would be fact-checked. Meanwhile, Stitt was chuckling.
“Oh my gosh,” he said. As Hofmeister began to speak again, he again broke in: “Hang on. Oklahomans, do you believe we have higher crime than New York or California? That’s what she just said!”
And that, in a nutshell, is how the debate on crime in the United States has played out. Democrats point to the available data, data that’s usually at least two years out of date. Republicans point to perceptions of crime, particularly in urban areas — perceptions that are long-standing and bolstered in recent months by Fox News.
We can start by fact-checking Hofmeister’s claim — or at least, checking it as best we can. Data from the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer shows that rates of violent crime were, in fact, higher in Oklahoma than New York or California in 2020. In California, the rate was 442 incidents per 100,000 residents; in Oklahoma, it was about 459 per 100,000. That’s in part because rates in Oklahoma rose between 2019 and 2020.
Notice that we’re talking about rates: the frequency of violent crime. It’s certainly not true that there is more violent crime in Oklahoma than New York or California, since those states have much larger populations. If there are only 10 murders in one town compared to 100 in the next one over, that’s not much consolation if the population of the first town is 100 and the population of the second is 1 million.
But then, those rates are from 2020. We don’t have good state-level data from 2021 at this point, much less 2022, thanks to changes in how the FBI collects data. Many large police departments haven’t yet converted over to the new system, so the 2021 data reported to the FBI from New York (for example) covers only 17 percent of the state’s population.
Since New York City (most of the missing chunk in the data the state handed over to the feds) reports its own data, though, we can note that in 2019 and 2020, its violent crime rate was lower than Oklahoma’s. Since we don’t have good data from Oklahoma for 2021, though, we can’t see if the surge in the city in 2021 pushed its rate past Oklahoma or not.
In other words, if the question is whether Oklahoma has had more violent crime per person this year than New York or California, we can’t fact-check it. We don’t know.
This is a wildly underrecognized point and a critically important one. That’s particularly true because crime is a core part of the political debate as the midterms approach. That people are prone to believing that crime is rising regardless of what’s actually happening — as research has shown — means that talking about rising crime simply feels true. Polling from YouGov conducted in August showed a pattern that’s recurred over and over since violent crime began to fall in the 1990s: People tend to think crime is rising nationally even if they don’t think it’s increasing where they live. So if you are a candidate or organization with a vested interest in amplifying concern about crime, it’s easy to cherry-pick incidents or isolated measures to reinforce that concern.
Notice what Stitt said to the audience. Not “her figures are wrong,” but “do you believe we have higher crime than New York or California?” Not fact but feeling.
In that YouGov polling, Republicans (who easily outnumber Democrats in the state) were much more likely to suspect that crime was a very serious problem nationally. To some extent, this is about how conservative media is talking about crime, often focusing on cherry-picked examples or points of data. But it’s also to some extent about the divide between urban and rural Americans. When Fox News covers crime, it’s almost uniformly in urban areas, despite reporting showing that rural areas are also battling more crime. Hofmeister’s invocation of New York and California was meant to contrast Stitt with blue states, but also, certainly, with the major cities those states contain.
The right has been tying Democrats and big cities and crime together with great energy since the summer of 2020. Even though research published earlier this year by the group Third Way found that Republican states had higher murder rates than Democratic ones. It’s a subset of violent crime, but one that gets a lot of attention.
In response to points like the one above, Republicans often blame blue cities in those red states. So let’s just look at Oklahoma. There were 4,326 violent crimes in Oklahoma City in 2021, according to city data. In a population of 688,000, that’s a rate of 666 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. That’s far higher than the rate in New York City.
Oklahoma City is also the largest U.S. city to vote for Donald Trump in 2020. Its mayor is a Republican, as is the state’s governor, Stitt.
It would be great if we had comparable, real-time numbers on crime from across the country. We don’t. And that means that efforts to talk about crime are hindered by a lack of data and polluted by appeals to emotion. The result is a debate — in Oklahoma and nationally — in which those two forces awkwardly collide.
But of course, Hofmeister is right. On Stitt’s watch — in 2020, that is — Oklahoma had a higher violent crime rate than those two large blue states. Even if it doesn’t now and even if it didn’t feel that way.