The City of San Francisco and liberal politicians have come under intense fire from some Republicans and law-and-order groups in recent days because of the fatal shooting of Kathryn Steinle, 32, of Pleasanton. Steinle was killed last week by Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a Mexican citizen who was released by San Francisco jailers even though the federal government had placed an immigration hold on him. San Francisco, like Berkeley and Oakland, is a sanctuary city that does not honor federal immigration holds — unless the arrestee is wanted on a felony. The San Francisco Sheriff's Department released Lopez-Sanchez a few months ago because he was in custody on a minor marijuana charge.
Some Republicans, led by presidential candidate Donald Trump, have pounced on the Steinle killing as proof that immigration policies in the United States and in liberal cities such as San Francisco are far too lax and are causing a violent crime wave. And the mainstream press has helped fan this controversy by reporting on the Republican accusations without doing some basic fact-checking: namely, that there's no evidence that US immigration policy has anything to do with violent crime, and that the killing of Steinle, while tragic, is actually an aberration. In fact, violent crime has been plummeting nationwide in recent years — and that's particularly true in liberal states like California, where violent crime is at historic lows.
Last week, the state Department of Justice reported that the total number of homicides in California last year — 1,691 — had dropped to its lowest level since 1971. And the state's homicide rate, which factors in population, was the lowest in five decades.
Similarly, the number of robberies last year in California plummeted to the lowest level since 1972, and the robbery rate — 126.4 per 100,000 — was the second lowest in the last 49 years, behind the 116.6 recorded in 1966. Overall, the number of violent crimes in California was the lowest since 1976, and the state's violent crime rate was third lowest in the DOJ's report, behind only the years 1966 and 1967.
You read those numbers right. Violent crime is not out of control in California — in fact, the opposite is true. The violent crime rate is so low it really shouldn't be a major issue anymore, at least not in comparison to more pressing ones, such as the drought, climate change, the affordable housing crisis, and income inequality. However, the public still perceives crime as being pervasive — when it's not — mainly because TV news and mainstream newspapers continuously bombard us with stories about how bad crime is. Why do they do it? It's simple. Crime sells.
And crime really sells when coupled with another overheated controversy: immigration. The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, has reported breathlessly on Page One this week about how "social media blazed with anger and frustration" over the killing of Steinle by an immigrant who had been freed by a sanctuary city, and that the incident had "lit up the Sunday talk shows" and is threatening to dominate next year's presidential campaign.
But those stories and others failed to mention one key truth: There is no real basis for a controversy. Crime has plunged to record lows at a time when the number of undocumented immigrants has soared. According to data compiled by the Pew Research Center, the number of unauthorized immigrants nationwide tripled between 1990 and 2010, skyrocketing from 3.4 million to 11.2 million. And yet during that same period, according to the FBI, the violent crime rate nosedived, dropping by 45 percent in the United States. In short, there's absolutely no connection between immigration and crime in the United States, and certainly not in California.
Unfortunately, the mainstream press prefers controversy and the crime-is-out-of-control narrative to sober fact-checking and putting things in context. And Republicans know it.
Connecting the Dots
Last week's crime numbers also blew holes in at least two other arguments peddled by Republicans and parroted by the press in recent years: that a reduction in the number of people imprisoned for low-level drug convictions, along with Governor Jerry Brown's realignment plan, which released nonviolent offenders from state lockup, would cause crime spikes. The numbers prove those claims were bogus, too. ...
Also, it's long past time for liberal politicians to stop cowering when demagogues like Trump start bloviating. The 320 or so sanctuary cities nationwide, including San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, should be proud of what they've done to protect immigrants. In cities without the sanctuary status, police have an incentive to stop Latinos and other people of color for no reason — other than the possibility that they might have an immigration hold. There's also anecdotal evidence of an actual link between immigration policy and crime: that the threat of deportation dissuades immigrants from reporting crimes or being witnesses in criminal cases.