Freedomnomics

This interview was aired Wednesday, July 4, 2007, at Fox News.

ANGLE: Are you safer on the streets today than you were a decade ago? How about a generation ago? We have heard some scary-sounding statistics about the U.S. crime rates, but what are the real numbers? National correspondent Catherine Herridge spoke with one expert who has undertaken a close study of the subject.

CATHERINE HERRIDGE, FOX NEWS NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, thank you for being our guest. Let's lay out a foundation for people. When we look at crime statistics over the last two or three decades, are we safer today than we were in the 1960's?

JOHN LOTT, AUTHOR, FREEDOMNOMICS: Well, early 1960's, murder rates were roughly similar to what they are now. Violent crime rates are still much higher now. But during the late 1960's they we want up and they pretty much stayed high during the 70's and 80's. And it was only in the beginning of the 90's that we began to see the drop.

Since the beginning of the 90's, murder rates are about half of what they were at that time. And finally, crime rates are down nearly a third. So we have seen big drops in crimes over the last decade and a half or so.

HERRIDGE: If that is the case, why is it, when we look at big newspapers, like the "New York Times" or "USA Today" and the headlines say that violent crime is up for the second or third year in a row, and they almost suggest that it is almost some sort of a spike in violent crime in this country?

LOTT: Right, well, there has basically been a couple waves of this publicity. We had some stories the very end of last year and the beginning of this year, and they were mainly motivated by studies that were put out by something called the Police Executive Research Foundation, which is kind of police chiefs mainly for large cities in the United States. And it was kind of picking data. So they would go and pick some cities to report. They would pick some crime numbers.

So, for example, they would exclude rape rates, because rapes were falling. And they would look at the number of crimes, rather than the crime rate.

HERRIDGE: Let me jump inn. Let's explain that to people. When you say the number of crimes versus the rate of a crime. What does that mean?

LOTT: Well, it would be like comparing Washington, D.C. and New York City. New York has more murders, but yet the murder rate is much, much higher Washington, D.C. because it is a much smaller city. So, the question is where would you feel more at risk? The probability of getting murdered in Washington, D.C. is much higher than New York City. So, you don't just want to look at the total number of murders because there are a lot of people who live in New York City. There's like 500,000 people that live in Washington, D.C.

So you have to if you care about the risk, then you have to take into account the number of people that live in the city.

HERRIDGE: So you have to look at the rate. What your investigation has shown is that they didn't produce these rates for these publications.

LOTT: Right, well, the number of murders or crimes, general - you don't want to compare the number of robberies today with the number of robberies 30 years ago, because the populations has gone up 100 million or so people during that period of time. I mean, if the absolute number of robberies went up, let's say, 20 percent, but the population went up 35 percent, the robbery rate, the risk that people would face

HERRIDGE: Is actually much less.

LOTT: It has gone down.

HERRIDGE: So what was this police group doing exactly when they were sort of cherry picking these statistics, in your opinion?

LOTT: Well, for example, they would leave out the murder numbers for New York City. It's kind of hard, you got the biggest city in the country, crime is falling there, you know, to leave that out when you are talking about crime going up or any other big cities that they left out. And I think it was to scare people a little bit about claiming you know, sure you can always pick some cities where murders are going up, but you don't want to go and claim murders are going up every place if murders are falling in other cities at the same time.

You want to look at everything that is there and it is hard to justify why you look at crimes from one city and not others.

HERRIDGE: Well, why, in your opinion, were they trying to scare people? I mean, what was the payoff for them?

LOTT: Well, I think they wanted more money from the government to help them out in hiring police and things like that. I mean, a lot of the money that went to police during the 90's really didn't go to police per se. You know, maybe they were going to hire 100 police officers anyway. So they just used the money they would have spent themselves on police to go and spend on some other part of city government. But a lot of cities valued that money from the federal government and I think there is an incentive to try and go get more money again.

HERRIDGE: So you are saying that they cherry picked these statistics to inflate them in some respect, to say violent crime is on the way up, therefore we need more federal money?

LOTT: Right, exactly and they wanted other types of laws too that they said would help them with crime. But it was pretty I have rarely seen people pick apart data the way that they had in this case.

HERRIDGE: How long have you been studying this kind of data.

LOTT: I have been dealing with crime data for two and a half decades or so.

HERRIDGE: So you have never seen anything like this before?

LOTT: No, not something that the Police Executive Research Foundation had done, nothing similar to what they did.

HERRIDGE: Have you ever approached them about why they manipulated the figures in this way? Have they made a public statement about why they were put out in this fashion?

LOTT: I had phoned them and tried to ask some questions early on. I never got any responses back. So I wrote the piece that I was writing for Fox News at the time. But I haven't tried to get back to them. It is pretty obvious. You have the FBI uniform crime report data and you can compare it to theirs.

HERRIDGE: What is the bottom line for you when you look at the over all violent crime rates in this country? Should people be assured that they are in fact safer today than they were let's say 20 years ago or 15 years ago?

LOTT: Yes, I don't think there is any double that people are much safer now than they were 15 or 20 years ago. The murder rates have gone down by 50 percent. That doesn't mean you still wouldn't like them to go down even further and there are some dangerous parts of country. But if people were worried or weren't that worried about murders five years ago, I wouldn't be much more worried about them now. It's not like all of a sudden we should be more afraid than we were five years ago.

HERRIDGE: John Lott, thank you for being my guest.

LOTT: Thank you very much.

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