Is Crime Out of Control? Or Are Perceptions About Crime Out of Whack With Reality?

Was the murder of a popular tech exec in San Francisco proof that the city's streets have become deadly?

PUBLISHED APR 21, 2023 8:56 A.M.
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Murder committed by strangers who don't know the victim remained relatively rare, data shows,

Murder committed by strangers who don't know the victim remained relatively rare, data shows,   Tony Webster / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. Share-Alike 4.0 License

Bob Lee was a 43-year-old tech executive and software developer best known as the founder of Cash App, a popular mobile payment application. In the early hours of the morning on April 4, 2023, he was stabbed to death in the Rincon Hill area of San Francisco, an upscale neighborhood—the median household income there tops $200,000—that is home to a number of luxury condo complexes and is generally considered quite safe. 

Major corporations including Google, the Gap and Mozilla have offices there. The West Coast branch of the prestigious Wharton School of Business is also located in Rincon Hill. Property taxes paid by residents pay for full-time private security in the area. Of the 56 homicides that took place in San Francisco in 2022, just three happened in Rincon Hill. The Lee murder was the first of 2023 in the district.

In the days immediately following Lee’s horrific slaying, some of the biggest names in the tech industry zeroed in on the tragedy, amplifying what over the past few years has become a widespread narrative—that crime is out of control in San Francisco. 

A City Gripped by Fear

A 2021 report by the conservative Hoover Institute claimed that San Francisco is “more dangerous than 98 percent of US cities, both small and large.” Even Mayor London Breed, who in 2020 pledged to strip $120 million out of the San Francisco Police budget, declared in late 2021, “It’s time that the reign of criminals who are destroying our city, it is time for it to come to an end,” promising to become “more aggressive with law enforcement” and “less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”

Billionaire venture capitalist David Sacks said that he would 'bet dollars to dimes' that Lee was murdered by 'a psychotic homeless person.'

The general perception of San Francisco as a city gripped by fear and lawlessness played a significant role in the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin in 2022, and since the progressive DA’s ouster, Breed and new D.A. Brooke Jenkins have proposed a sweeping program of surveillance that would allow police access to thousands of private security cameras, a program which former San Francisco prosecutor Arcelia Hurtado said would “take us back to a police state.”

Following Lee’s death, billionaire venture capitalist David Sacks, in a podcast, said that he would “bet dollars to dimes” that Lee was murdered by “a psychotic homeless person.” Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter—and the world’s second-richest persontweeted that he agreed with Sacks “absolutely.” 

Another prominent tech investor and podcaster, Jason Calacanis, called San Francisco's police commission member Kevin Bendicto and other city leaders “LUNATICS,” in an all-caps tweet, and “EVIL INCOMPETENT FOOLS & GRIFTERS WHO ACCOMPLISH NOTHING EXCEPT ENABLING RAMPANT VIOLENCE.”

And then, just nine days after Lee was killed, police made an arrest in the case. The suspect, 38-year-old Nima Momeini, was not a “psychotic homeless person” but, in fact, another tech industry entrepreneur. According to court documents filed by prosecutors, Lee and Momeini were acquaintances, and the murder followed an argument over something to do with Momeini’s sister.

The circumstances should not have been a surprise. FBI data shows that most murders are committed not by strangers, but by someone who has a personal relationship with the victim, including family members. Yet the fear about rising crime in San Francisco and around the country—a 2022 Gallup poll found Americans worrying about crime more than any time since 2016—does not seem to be about the fear of friends and relatives turning violent. 

What, then, is all the fear actually about? 

Putting Murder in Context

During the COVID-19 pandemic year of 2020, when health measures requiring social distancing, remote work and other factors reducing in-person interaction remained in place, America’s fear of crime dropped. Fear of the most serious crime, murder, according to the Gallup poll, fell to 17 percent in 2020. That is, 17 percent of Americas said they either frequently or at least occasionally experienced fear that they would be murdered. 

That was down from 20 percent the previous year—even though actual murders spiked by 30 percent from 2019 to 2020.

In fact, the 2019-2020 murder spike was the largest jump in the homicide rate since a 2001 rise of 20 percent from 2000—but that increase was driven largely by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks which killed almost 3,000 people, all of them counted as homicide victims.

In 2021, according to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who feared being murdered jumped back up to 22 percent.

The average Caifornian’s chance of being murdered 29 years earlier was more than twice what it was in 2022.

Those were the fears, but how did they measure up to reality? Taking California as an example, murder was indeed up in 2021, hitting a rate of 6.4 homicide fatalities for every 100,000 state residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That was up somewhat from 2020 (6.1) and rather dramatically from the pre-pandemic year of 2019 when California saw 4.5 murders per 100,000.

Did the increase justify the national alarm about rising crime? While it’s true that California’s 2021 murder rate was its highest since 2007, looking at the larger context of the previous three decades, the rate remains quite low.  

The early 1990s saw murder rates greater than 11 per 100,000, peaking in 1993 when the state suffered 13.1 murders for every 100K residents—meaning that the average Caifornian’s chance of being murdered 29 years earlier was more than twice what it was in 2022.

As for San Francisco, where violent crime is supposedly “rampant,” murder is a relatively rare crime, especially compared to other United States cities of similar size. The city saw 56 murders each in 2021 and 2022, which was up from 48 in 2020 and 41 in 2019. 

But according to data from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, Indianapolis, IN,  despite an almost identical population, experienced 226 homicides in 2010 and 271 in 2021. Kansas City, MO, despite being home to almost 300,000 fewer people than San Francisco saw more than three times as many murders—164 in 2020, 156 in 2021.

The murder of Bob Lee was San Francisco’s 12th in the first 94 days of 2023, a pace that would result in 47 murders for the year. 

The Most Dangerous People Are the Ones You Know

Contrary to the apparent hysteria over “out of control” crime and violence on San Francisco’s streets, the killing of Bob Lee by someone he knew rather than by a random stranger, was typical of how most murders take place.

"‘The streets’ are likely far safer places for women and girls than their domestic environments."
Forensic psychologist Coral Dando

According to FBI data based on 2019 national figures (the latest available) out of 7,119 murders in which the relationship between victim and killer could be determined, just 19 percent were committed by strangers. Over 80 percent were cases of family members or other acquaintances killing each other. (The remaining one percent were classified as “justifiable” homicides by the FBI, about evenly divided between police officers killing suspected felons and private citizens slaying offenders in the act of committing crimes.)

Of those “acquaintance” homicides in the FBI data, there were 482 cases of husbands killing their wives, and 85 of wives killing husbands. Children (including adult children) killed their mothers 166 times and fathers 178 times, while parents killed their own sons 259 times and daughters 171 times. Siblings killed each other 142 times.

The FBI numbers are not fully comprehensive and include only homicides reported by local law enforcement to the feds. 

What do those numbers mean? As forensic psychologist Coral Dando wrote in Psychology Today, “‘The streets’ are likely far safer places for women and girls than their domestic environments.” The same holds true for men and boys, though to a somewhat lesser degree. American males are at a far greater danger of dying by homicide than women, a likelihood that applies to both stranger murder and acquaintance killings.  

Of 17,754 murders in 2020 America 80 percent of all victims, 14,146, were men and boys. There were 3,573 female murder victims in the same time frame, and 40 percent of those murdered women were Black.

So What Do We Mean When We Talk About Crime?

More Americans now than at any time in the last 50 years believe that crime in their local area is on the rise. A 2022 Gallup poll found 56 percent of Americans saying that crime is up where they live—the highest figure since 54 percent in 1981—and 78 percent believing crime is up across the country. That’s the most since 1992 when 89 percent thought crime was rising nationally.

But according to a report by The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focusing on criminal justice issues, “Public perception doesn’t line up well with reality, and hasn’t for quite some time.”

According to UC Berkeley Law Professor Jonathan Simon, quoted in the Marshall Project report, “the further you get from the city and county level…the more crime becomes a demon, an abstraction that is much easier to create a moral panic around.”

In fact, perceptions of rising crime have a lot to do with partisan politics. During the administrations of the last two Republican presidents, Donald Trump and George W. Bush, self-described Democrats were most likely to say that crime was getting worse, according to data cited by the Marshall report. But the situation reverses when a Democrat is in the White House. 

The partisan divide in fear of rising crime is also exacerbated by racial backlash. In 2016, following the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement, 54 percent of Republicans said they worried about rising crime. That was the highest figure until 2022, after the 2020 protests over the police killing of George Floyd, when Republican crime fears hit 61 percent. 

In other words, when Americans talk about their fears of crime, they are actually expressing their fears about race and their own partisan political leanings. They may also be simply recycling perceptions fed to them by the media. According to a 2014 report by The Sentencing Project, “media outlets reinforce the public’s racial misconceptions about crime by presenting African Americans and Latinos differently than whites–both quantitatively and qualitatively.”

Whites overestimate the amount of crime committed by people of color by as much as 30 percent, according to data cited by The Sentencing Project, and “implicit bias research has uncovered widespread and deep-seated tendencies among whites—including criminal justice practitioners to associate blacks and Latinos with criminality.”

Whites are also more likely to support harshly punitive measures against criminals, even though people of color are significantly more likely to become victims of crime than white Americans. 

Are any of these realities likely to change perceptions that crime is “out of control” in America, or even in San Francisco where Bob Lee was killed? That’s difficult to say definitively. But if the reactions of the tech industry figures who reacted so hysterically to Lee’s murder are any indication, the answer is no.

When the New York Times asked Calcanis if the arrest of an acquaintance in Lee’s murder changed his views, he replied that “the press trying to make this into a ‘gotcha’ situation is just pathetic.” And Sacks responded to the news that Lee was apparently killed by someone he knew by defending his speculation that a homeless person was the killer as “logical.”

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