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Murder Rates Keep Rising

When police departments in large urban areas started posting alarming increases in violent crime in 2015, liberal and centrist media outlets rushed to tell their readers that the increase was either a myth cooked up by right-wing pundits, or else greatly exaggerated—and that, in any case it certainly didn’t have anything to with the political turmoil set off by high-profile police shooting controversies (the hypothesis known as the “Ferguson Effect”). But it’s getting harder and harder to deny that the uptick is real, persistent, and deadly. The Washington Post reports:

The number of homicides increased in the first months of 2016 in more than two dozen major U.S. cities, going up in places that also saw spiking violence last year, according to statistics released Friday. […]

“I was very worried about it last fall, and I am in many ways more worried, because the numbers are not only going up, they’re continuing to go up in most of those cities faster than they were going up last year,” FBI Director James B. Comey, who got an early look at the numbers, said Wednesday. “Something is happening.”

Writers pooh-poohing the rise in crime rates usually point out that the murder rate remains significantly lower than it was in the 1990s, before 20 years of nearly uninterrupted declines. But that is small comfort to Comey, who recognizes that it’s his job to keep it that way.

Meanwhile, the idea of a Ferguson Effect is getting a second look from at least one prominent skeptic. The Guardian reports:

For nearly a year, Richard Rosenfeld’s research on crime trends has been used to debunk the existence of a “Ferguson effect”, a suggested link between protests over police killings of black Americans and an increase in crime and murder. Now, the St Louis criminologist says, a deeper analysis of the increase in homicides in 2015 has convinced him that “some version” of the Ferguson effect may be real.

Looking at data from 56 large cities across the country, Rosenfeld found a 17% increase in homicide in 2015. Much of that increase came from only 10 cities, which saw an average 33% increase in homicide.

“These aren’t flukes or blips, this is a real increase,” he said. “It was worrisome. We need to figure out why it happened.”

Why the reluctance (in some quarters) to recognize that the rise in the rate of killing is a cause for concern, and that it might be related to the fraying of police-community relations in high-crime areas in the wake of shootings and protests? One reason is probably the perception that publicizing the problem could derail the push for criminal justice reform. But Americans are already more concerned about crime and violence than they have been in 15 years, and—partly as a result—the much-hyped Senate bill relaxing federal penalties for certain nonviolent offenses is advancing slower than many people anticipated.

Criminal justice reformers (whose aims we broadly sympathize with) would probably do better to explain why their proposed reforms won’t increase the crime rate—and why draconian sentencing for nonviolent offenses is probably not the most efficient way to address it—rather than continuing to deny that there is a real problem in some of America’s biggest cities.

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