Why is violent crime surging in many U.S. cities?
A rise in homicides and shootings in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Baltimore, St. Louis and Milwaukee has raised fears that the nation's overall crime rates, which began dropping 20 years ago, could be on an upward trend.
In some cities, spikes in violence came after the August 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. That led some commentators, criminologists and, notably, the police chief in nearby St. Louis to point to the “Ferguson effect.” That's the argument that police, fearful of being disciplined or even indicted for misconduct, have pulled back on enforcement amid protests and fierce public criticism of law enforcement after several prominent incidents of police killings and other violence against civilians caught on tape over the past year.
Disturbing increases in violence have been reported over the first six months of this year as well.
In St. Louis, police reported last week that homicide totals climbed nearly 60 percent, to 93, in the first six months of 2015 compared with the same period last year. At the same time, robbery rose about 40 percent and aggravated assaults about 18 percent. Only rape and arson declined.
The spike in most violent crimes prompted St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson to renew an emergency request July 9 to hire 160 police officers to beef up the force of about 1,250. The measure would have gone to a public vote and could have upped the police department budget by an estimated $8.7 million in the first year and $9 million in the second year, but it failed to win enough support on the city's Board of Aldermen, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
The increases in violent crime come after the annual rate of homicides seemed to have had stabilized after 20 years of declines at about five per 100,000 residents nationwide.
In Baltimore, the number of homicides through early July has soared to 155 from 105 by early July a year ago, with violence surging after riots, protests and backlash against police after the April 27 funeral of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died while in police custody. Six police officers face charges in the Gray case.
Last Wednesday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, citing the spike in murders in the city.
Baltimore police union president Lt. Gene Ryan argues that the Ferguson effect is the primary reason for that city's crime upsurge. Since the funeral of Gray, and the subsequent violent street protests in the city, police pulled back on enforcement of many types of street crime, Ryan said. “Police are more afraid of going to jail for doing their jobs properly than they are of getting shot on duty,” he said.
The city’s homicide tally included three people murdered one night last week in a quadruple shooting near the downtown campus of the University of Maryland in Baltimore. The mayor also criticized Batts for his handling of the riots after Gray's funeral. She said the top cop's lack of leadership has detracted from effective policing of the city, though some critics say the mayor shares the blame for essentially telling police to go easy on protests that escalated into riots.
“Too many continue to die on our streets, including three just last night and one lost earlier today,” Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday. “Families are tired of feeling this pain, and so am I …. We need a change.”
Baltimore City Councilman Brandon Scott said, “We know that people are dying at record levels that have not seen since the ’90s right now in our city and accountability starts at the top. Over the past few months, we have seen the relationship with the police and community deteriorate…. and a lot of that people hold the police commissioner accountable.”
Such claims might have some legitimacy, says Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer who is now an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “I don't think it's a Ferguson effect; I think it's a Baltimore effect,” he said. “From cops I've spoken to there, I think police really did change after April 27 when you lost one-man patrol units in the Eastern and Western districts. For a while on every routine call, there's a big crowd.
“With two, three and four officers responding to every call and officers on medical leave because of the riots, patrols had been decimated,” Moskos said.
So, too, was police morale as officers feared being accused of using excessive force, he said. “Cops are saying, 'Yeah, we're not frisking people and we're not making discretionary arrests,'” Moskos said.
In Los Angeles, homicides declined, but all other categories of violent and property crime increased thus far this year, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of police department data through
June 27, with overall violent crime up 21 percent and the number of shooting victims up almost 19 percent.
Mayor Eric Garcetti and Police Chief Charlie Beck pointed to a range of possible reasons: an outbreak of gang crime, an epidemic in domestic violence, tension between police and communities, particularly black communities, and Proposition 47. Under that measure, approved by voters in November, six types of felonies were converted to misdemeanors.
Speaking of the increase in violence, Beck said: “This is what keeps me awake at night. I do take this personally. I’ve spent 40 years of my life trying to keep this city safe, and even though it is
safer than in all those 40 years, I still worry about this.”
In New York City, through June 28, the number of homicides rose to 161 from 145 during the same period the previous year, and shootings to 542 from 511.
Still, Police Commissioner William Bratton noted that the annual level of crimes including murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and auto theft had ebbed to the lowest since at least 1993.
“We've got a good handle on the crime situation in the city of New York,” Bratton was quoted as saying in The New York Times. “And it's my expectation that by the end of this year, that we may end the year with the, once again, the lowest amount of crime recorded in the history of the city.”
Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute and the New York Post attributed an increase in violence to a sharp reduction in the controversial “stop-and-frisk” practice, in which officers stop people for suspicious behavior.
A Post editorial called for a return to the intensive “stop-question-and-frisk” practices that federal judge Shira Scheindlin ruled in August 2013 had unconstitutionally singled out citizens on the basis of their race.
Actually, the curtailment of stop-and-frisk began under the previous mayoral administration. In response to the judge's ruling, then-Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly reined in stop-and-frisks —and crime in the city plunged to a record low. A New York Times analysis found stops for stop-and-frisks declined from 337,410 in the first half of 2012 to 33,699 in the second half of 2013.
Bratton, Kelly's successor, introduced stop-and-frisk during an earlier stint as commissioner, and continues to defend the practice as an important tool of policing, He has also conceded that the strategy may have been misused in a way that has worsened police relations with minority communities. Ue hasn't echoed the press and critics' calls for a return to the old approach.
So what accounted for New York crime spikes this year?
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Bratton say homicides have increased in only a handful precincts, not citywide, Bratton denied that the city was under threat from an upsurge in violence, and said many of the deaths have been drug- or gang-related.
In Milwaukee, murders have soared to 82 – nearly double the number from the first six months in each of the past two years.
Last week, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn spoke at a news conference about the recent spike in homicides.
“Too many people want to pretend there are simple answers to complex problems,” Flynn said. “There aren’t.”
Indeed, criminologists and some police officials dispute an op-ed by the Manhattan Institute’s Mac Donald's, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal blaming the crime surge on the Ferguson effect.
In her May 29 piece, Mac Donald declared, “The nation's two-decades-long crime decline may be over. The most plausible explanation of the current surge in lawlessness is the intense agitation
against American police departments over the past nine months.”
The media have played an important role in providing a sounding board for such theories, in some cases reaching for evidence well before the Ferguson incident.
“The news media pump out a seemingly constant stream of stories about alleged police mistreatment of blacks, with the reports often buttressed by cellphone videos that rarely capture the behavior that caused an officer to use force,” Mac Donald wrote.
Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri St. Louis and the author of a new report for the Washington-based Sentencing Project, a criminal justice-reform nonprofit, said it's still too early to tell whether the Ferguson effect is to blame for a spike in violence in St. Louis or elsewhere.
Rosenfeld told The Crime Report that said a month-by-month comparison between 2013 and 2014 homicides shows the increase began well before the Brown killing in Ferguson.
“So I find it very difficult to assign any statistical influence to Michael Brown's killing for explaining the increase in homicides when homicides were going up prior to Michael Brown being killed,” Rosenfeld said.
Looking beyond Ferguson and St. Louis to the nation as a whole, Rosenfeld said, “There are a number of cities with crime increases. That doesn't mean, however, that we're in the midst of a new crime wave. My view is it's too early to tell if we're in the midst of a new crime wave. A month of two of an increase doesn't constitute a crime wave.”
He said the increases in other categories of violent crime besides homicide, as well as in property crime in St. Louis, could be linked to the aftermath of Brown's killing, but that other factors
could be responsible as well. Among them, he said, are disputes over drug turf, gang conflict, more guns on the street and local economic woes. Other criminologists cite cyclical and seasonal changes in crime rates.
David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who studies criminal law and police behavior, also said it's hard to pinpoint what's behind the upsurge in violence in American cities or how long it might last.
“My take overall is that it's far too early to say that the decline of 20 years is over, or that we're in the midst of a crime wave,” Harris told The Crime Report. “We have had upticks and downticks during this 20-year or more decline, and what we always heard then was one year does not a trend make. It's something we have to see over a sufficient amount of time and shouldn't jump to conclusions.”
Gary Gately is a 2014 John Jay/Tow Foundation Juvenile Justice Reporting fellow, is a Baltimore-based freelance writer. He welcomes comments from readers.