Jon Hilsenrath and Joe Barrett, Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2021
A murder wave in U.S. cities that started last year is carrying forward into 2021, and a growing body of research shows a pattern behind the rise: It has been concentrated in relatively few poor neighborhoods, typically Black and Hispanic, with persistent histories of violence.
As elected officials and communities search for solutions, recognizing this geographical reality is essential, say social scientists and police officials who have studied the murder wave. Police and other city authorities will need to focus their efforts on a few areas that have missed out on the urban renaissance of the past two decades as their middle-class residents have fled. Controversy over policing has complicated matters after the conviction of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, for the killing of George Floyd, a Black man. “The problem isn’t going away,” said Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab. “People in my world are very nervous about the summer of 2021.”
Homicide is up 9.1% in New York so far this year and 22% so far in Chicago, following double-digit increases in both places and in many other cities last year. Mr. Ludwig calculates that nearly three-quarters of Chicago’s homicide increase in 2020 was concentrated in a cluster of eight of the city’s 25 police districts, mostly in the city’s predominantly Black South Side and largely Hispanic West Side.
Similar patterns have shown up elsewhere. New York saw a 47% increase in homicide in 2020 concentrated in a patch of Brooklyn neighborhoods with a long history of violence, including Brownsville, Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant. It also hit the south Bronx and the Harlem section of Manhattan, said Michael LiPetri, the New York Police Department’s chief of crime control strategies.
In St. Louis, six of 76 neighborhoods, representing 7% of the city population, accounted for half of the 2020 homicide increase to 264 from 194, said Richard Rosenfeld, a crime researcher at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. They tended to be minority and poor, he said. In Philadelphia, most of the increases in shootings and homicides were concentrated in areas northeast and southwest of the city center, places long plagued by violence, according to data compiled by David Abrams, a crime researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Ludwig describes the pattern as a little-noticed new form of inequality—one of public safety. In 1985, he said, the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago had about twice as many murders per capita as safer ones. In recent years that difference stretched in some places to 16 to 1—making the problem an epidemic in some neighborhoods and hardly on the radar in others.
For much of the past 20 years, violent crime receded in American cities. A range of factors led to the decline, including the waning of a national crack cocaine epidemic. Some places gentrified, drawing in business and more affluent residents, but others lost people and became even more isolated, segregated and poor. Many of these areas saw hospitals, schools, churches and businesses—the institutions that tie a place together and create order—shut down. Losing that social and economic infrastructure left them prone to gangs and violence.
When Covid-19 swept through American cities last year—with lockdowns closing schools and courts and constraining policing—these neighborhoods faced a new wave of gun violence, gang activity and murder, researchers and police say.
Distrust of police in many neighborhoods grew after Mr. Floyd’s killing, making it even harder for police to maintain order. Police in some places became reluctant to engage amid a public backlash over their tactics and behavior, and residents became less willing to help with tips and information.
Mr. Rosenfeld and Mr. LiPetri said that the problem may have been made worse because police were drawn away from violent neighborhoods to city centers to monitor protests against policing and, in some cases, to respond to rioting and looting. “That is a sad irony,” said Mr. Rosenfeld.