Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities

Monica Davey and Mitch Smith, New York Times, August 31, 2015

Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines, and few places have witnessed a shift as precipitous as this city [Milwaukee]. With the summer not yet over, 104 people have been killed this year–after 86 homicides in all of 2014.

More than 30 other cities have also reported increases in violence from a year ago. In New Orleans, 120 people had been killed by late August, compared with 98 during the same period a year earlier. In Baltimore, homicides had hit 215, up from 138 at the same point in 2014. In Washington, the toll was 105, compared with 73 people a year ago. And in St. Louis, 136 people had been killed this year, a 60 percent rise from the 85 murders the city had by the same time last year.

Law enforcement experts say disparate factors are at play in different cities, though no one is claiming to know for sure why murder rates are climbing. Some officials say intense national scrutiny of the use of force by the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals, though many experts dispute that theory.

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Urban bloodshed–as well as the overall violent crime rate–remains far below the peaks of the late 1980s and early ’90s, and criminologists say it is too early to draw broad conclusions from the recent numbers. In some cities, including Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Newark, homicides remain at a relatively steady rate this year.

Yet with at least 35 of the nation’s cities reporting increases in murders, violent crimes or both, according to a recent survey, the spikes are raising alarm among urban police chiefs. The uptick prompted an urgent summit meeting in August of more than 70 officials from some of the nation’s largest cities. A Justice Department initiative is scheduled to address the rising homicide rates as part of a conference in September.

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Among some experts and rank-and-file officers, the notion that less aggressive policing has emboldened criminals–known as the “Ferguson effect” in some circles–is a popular theory for the uptick in violence.

“The equilibrium has changed between police and offenders,” said Alfred Blumstein, a professor and a criminologist at Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University.

Others doubt the theory or say data has not emerged to prove it. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said homicides in St. Louis, for instance, had already begun an arc upward in 2014 before a white police officer killed an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in nearby Ferguson. That data, he said, suggests that other factors may be in play.

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Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee, who is up for re-election early next year, receives text messages about every homicide; they come faster now, every few days. The issue already is taking center stage in the race: Some of Mr. Barrett’s critics say he is not doing enough to stop crime, while citing what they consider low investment in the city’s African-American neighborhoods and mistreatment of black residents by the police.

“I have to find a way for these young kids to understand that they have a stake in society,” said Mr. Barrett, who has met with pastors, community leaders and others to discuss the killings.

In Milwaukee, most of the victims and the suspects in their killings are black men under 30, police data shows, who come from neighborhoods where foreclosures, joblessness and poverty are also high. Most involve guns and people–both victims and suspects–who have been arrested before. The most common motive in the slayings was not robbery or gang rivalry but an argument, according to the data.

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