Is the violent crime rate higher in Oklahoma or New York? A governor’s debate raises the question

Christopher Wilson

·Senior Writer

Thu, 20 October 2022 at 5:28 pm

An exchange during Wednesday night’s Oklahoma gubernatorial debate underscored some common misperceptions about crime in the United States.

In the race, which polling shows to be surprisingly competitive for the conservative state, Democrat Joy Hofmeister addressed incumbent Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt during the pair’s lone scheduled debate.

“The fact is the rates of violent crime in Oklahoma are higher under your watch than New York and California,” said Hofmeister, the Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction, who switched parties last year. “That’s a fact.”

Stitt interjected “That’s not true” and laughed. When Hofmeister tried to continue, Stitt, still laughing, addressed the audience, saying, “Oklahomans, do you believe we have higher crime than New York or California? That’s what she just said.” The back-and-forth came after a lengthy and contentious discussion of the death penalty and sentence commutations.

Joy Hofmeister, Oklahoma's superintendent of public instruction, speaks at a news conference.
Joy Hofmeister at a news conference in Oklahoma City in June. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

John Roman, a senior fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago, told Yahoo News that Hofmeister’s numbers were accurate. Citing FBI data, Roman said that “Oklahoma is 12th in violence per 100,000 residents and 7th in property crime per 100,000 residents. California is similar but lower for each, and New York is much safer and below the national averages in both property and violence. Overall, putting violent crime rates and property crime rates together, Oklahoma is on the list of the top 10 highest crime rate states.”

Roman noted that the National Incident-Based Reporting System now being used by the FBI is new and that California and New York only provided estimates for 2021, which were factored in the data. However, Roman added that the old system prior to 2021 “shows the same general trend in recent years: California and Oklahoma are similar, with Oklahoma a little higher on property crimes, and New York much lower on both.”

In a statement to Yahoo News, Stitt’s campaign manager, Donelle Harder, said, “The FBI has admitted that the 2021 data is incomplete and incomparable, as it was the first year to transition to a new reporting method for States. We know Governor Stitt’s pro-safety, smart-on-crime policies are working because Oklahoma has the lowest recidivism rate in the nation; and he has invested in training and recruitment of public safety professionals, increased state law enforcement pay by 30%, and made record investments in mental health resources both for Oklahomans and our law enforcement.”

According to the Oklahoman, the state has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates but a recidivism rate — which refers to the number of convicted felons who reoffend — of about 20%, one of the lowest.

Using the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Oklahoma ranked ahead of both California and New York in homicide rates from 2014 to 2020. A study released earlier this year by the center-left think tank Third Way found that murder rates were higher in states that voted for former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

According to Roman, there are a number of explanations for why people would be surprised by that statistic and why it’s accurate.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks during a roundtable at the White House in 2020.
Gov. Kevin Stitt at the White House in 2020. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“Oklahoma has a higher percentage of people living outside of cities, and cities typically have a higher crime rate, so Oklahoma has a built-in advantage, which explains why people are surprised by the data,” Roman said. “Easy access to firearms explains some of the difference in aggravated assault, robbery and homicide, because the more people are carrying a gun, the more likely it is that a fistfight becomes a gun fight.

“But the strength of the social safety net is also really important,” he added. “Just as one example, studies have shown that access to prescription medicines for mental health conditions has a substantial effect on the crime rate, [reducing] as much as 10 percent of crime over time. The states that have more crime overwhelmingly invest less in prevention.”

Ahead of next month’s midterms, the conservative cable network Fox News has been promoting stories about crime, following host Tucker Carlson’s own August advice for Republican candidates to focus on “law and order” to cause a “red wave” at the ballot box. This coverage has generally focused on cities — typically controlled by Democrats — including accusations of police defunding following the protests of 2020. However, few cities actually decreased police budgets, and most increased them over that time.

The coverage of crime extends beyond right-wing media and GOP attack ads: A Bloomberg analysis in July showed that while shootings in New York City were relatively flat — although higher than pre-pandemic levels — news coverage of the shootings were at a much higher rate than last year. Polling has shown that for decades, Americans almost always think crime is worse than it is, regardless of its level at the given time.

An officer stands near a Citi Bike at the scene of a shooting in Alphabet City in lower Manhattan.
An officer at the scene of a shooting in lower Manhattan on Sept. 1. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

While Republicans are running on being tough on crime, their proposed solutions generally do not address the social safety nets. At a debate earlier this month, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., replied to a question about what he would do to combat crime rates by saying he would fully fund police and thank them for their service. He said he would not support new gun laws, despite studies showing an increased number of firearms leads to more crime.

In Pennsylvania, Republican Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz and his allies have hammered his opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, for being soft on crime, tightening a race that had looked to be tilting in Fetterman’s favor for much of the summer.

Oz, however, has said he also wouldn’t support new firearm laws. The gun safety group Everytown pledged a $2.1 million ad buy against Republicans in the state, after supporting retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, who worked on a bipartisan background check bill. In its first ad, the group says Oz “won’t keep us safe,” citing his opposition to background checks.

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