After a report this week that homicide totals are up in many big cities, the Wall Street Journal took its own survey, finding that sixteen of the 20 largest police departments reported a year-over-year rise in homicides as of mid-December. Chicago experienced one of the most dramatic jumps, with more than 720 murders—up 56 percent from 2015. Chicago’s count, greater than the considerably larger cities of Los Angeles and New York combined, marks a grim tally not seen since the violent drug wars of the 1990s. Police are struggling to solve the killings, clearing only one in five homicides so far this year. “I have a lot of concern about that many cities experiencing those increases in violence,” said Darrel Stephens of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. He said it is too early to know whether the increases constitute a trend.
Stephens thinks crime is largely driven by local dynamics such as drug-related violence. Police chiefs bemoan the easy availability of firearms. In Chicago, police have seized more than 8,000 illegal guns this year. Some experts attribute the rise to the widely debated view that violent-crime increases are tied to the civil unrest that roiled cities after police killings of young black men, starting with Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. The main version of the theory holds that many officers have shied away from confrontation, emboldening criminals. Another posits that growing distrust of police among minority residents has made people less willing to come forward as witnesses and more inclined to resolve disputes themselves. “I don’t think anyone knows which of those may be operating, or whether a combination is operating,” said criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Anecdotally, I think Chicago is a good example of a city in which both may be operating.”