No Easy Explanation for U.S. Homicide Rise: Criminologists

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No one is sure why the homicide total in the US increased in both 2015 and 2016, but experts gathered on Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss two popular theories: that the change had to do with police withdrawal of services in response to anti-police sentiment after officer-involved shootings—the so-called “Ferguson effect”—or that it was related to the increase in overdose deaths from opoids.

The basic conclusion was that neither theory explains the trend, and that more research is needed on local trends to establish the cause.

The occasion was the third annual “ask a criminologist” session sponsored by the Crime & Justice Research Alliance and the Consortium of Social Science Associations.

The issue of depolicing has been called the “Ferguson effect,” because of anecdotal reports of a reduction in law enforcement activity after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 and subsequent anti-police protests.

Criminologist Shytierra Gaston of Indiana University told the briefing that at least some of the homicide rises in 2015 and 2016 might have been related to the idea of “street justice,” that some citizens are “taking matters into our own hands” and not relying on police officers, some of whom reportedly have been acting more cautiously in the aftermath of public criticism over Ferguson and other police shootings.

But it’s not clear how much “depolicing” actually has been occurring, said Howard Spivak, deputy director of the National Institute of Justice, the US Justice Department’s research arm.

Spivak said the available data don’t back the idea that the “Ferguson effect” was a causal factor in rising homicide totals, particularly those involving white victims.

The other major crime trend in recent years is the sharp rise in overdose deaths attributed to opioids.

Spivak said it is clearer in that case that homicides involving white people have been “associated with opioid commerce and use,” but association doesn’t necessarily mean causality.

Police Chief Richard Biehl of Dayton, Ohio, whose city is in one of the areas hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, agreed that there is no proof of the opioid-homicide link.

Drug-related murders in Dayton rose markedly both in 2015 and 2016, reflecting the national trend.

Yet both homicides and violent crime generally dropped fairly sharply last year as opioid overdoses continued to increase, Biehl said. He added that opioids were linked only to about seven percent of murders.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University estimated that murders were down 4.4 percent last year in the nation’s 30 largest cities, but an FBI compilation of the national total won’t be available until later this year.

The experts agreed that more analysis is needed of changing homicide rates in localities.

National data may mask the fact that changes in particular city totals may differ from the apparent U.S. trend.

Spivak noted that, as was the case in Dayton, in some cities violent crime is down while opioid overdoses have increased, raising questions about a possible connection.

Speakers lamented the demise of the federally funded Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program (ADAM), which tested arrestees in many cities for drug use between 1987 and 2004. The testing later was resumed on a limited basis from 2007 to 2014.

Without ADAM, it’s difficult to link drug abuse definitively to criminal activity on a citywide or national basis.

Both Chief Biehl and Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute, who moderated the expert discussion, said they would welcome the resumption of ADAM or a program like it.

Spivak, whose agency blamed lack of funding for ending the program in several dozen places, said there is still no money available at NIJ to re-start the drug testing program.

Spivak and Gaston co-authored with criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri – St.Louis a report on the subjects discussed in Tuesday’s briefing, and Rosenfeld wrote about it in The Crime Report last December.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report.

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