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Why cities can expect 2020’s violent crime spike to last

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In his 2016 book, “The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America,” criminologist Barry Latzer quoted crime historian Eric Monkkonen, who suggested that crime trends would follow a cyclical pattern. Monkkonen noted that “[R]ising violence provokes a multitude of control efforts” but when “the murder rate ebbs, control efforts get relaxed, thus creating the multiple conditions causing the next upswing.” 

There is no doubt that the United States, by and large, became more aggressive in its approach to rising violent crime during the 1980s and ’90s. One could argue that, in some ways, the pendulum swung into the territory of an overcorrection, which understandably fueled calls for a more measured, less punitive approach. Those calls have been largely heeded in jurisdictions across the country over the last decade. 

Between 2009-2019, the country’s imprisonment rate has declined 17 percent and arrests declined by more than 25 percent, going from more than 13.6 million to just over 10 million. Over the last decade we’ve seen the enactment of a multitude of state and federal sentencing reforms, as well as changes to pretrial detention practices. We’ve also seen the election of “progressive” prosecutors in well over a dozen jurisdictions with at least 500,000 residents. After the 2008 elections, there was a sharp uptick in federal oversight of local police departments; and recent years have seen a slew of police reforms enacted in major cities that have placed new restrictions on pursuits, searches and use of force. 

If the palatability of those changes were a function of historically low crime rates, the troubling crime spike of 2020 (like the smaller spikes in 2015 and ’16) provides another opportunity to consider the question — one which I and others have been raising in recent years — of whether the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Unfortunately, this is a possibility few seem willing to consider at the moment, which may render last year’s violent crime levels likely to persist.

In my last column for The Hill, I wrote that whether the 2020 spike in urban violence turned out to be a short-lived digression or the beginning of a prolonged deterioration of public safety could depend on the degree to which the spike was (or wasn’t) a function of political decisions — made over the last several years in jurisdictions across the country — that have functionally raised the transaction costs of enforcing the law while lowering those of breaking it. Why? Because, despite the fact that the U.S. surpassed 20,000 criminal homicides in a single year for the first time since the mid-1990s, there was no indication that self-styled “reformers” had any intention of slowing down. If anything, it seemed clear that reformers would leap through the newly expanded Overton Window, and continue to crank open that artifactual chest labeled “property of Pandora” in their effort to “reimagine” public safety. 

That’s exactly what’s happened, which could mean that urban America’s crime problem will get worse before it gets better. 

According to The New York Times, “Over 30 states have passed more than 140 new police oversight and reform laws,” since 2020 — not to mention other criminal justice reforms. 

A few examples:

  • In March, New York’s city council passed a package of bills that would, among other things, increase the risk that officers will be held personally liable in lawsuits; ban them from living in the city’s more-affordable suburbs (making it likelier they will cross paths with those whom they’ve arrested while off-duty); and transfer matters of officer discipline from the police commissioner to a potentially (perhaps even likely) hostile civilian review board.
  • In Albany, state lawmakers are considering two legislative proposals — the first of which would wipe clean the criminal record of any offender who can go three years without a conviction; the second would reduce imprisonments related to parole violations.
  • José Garza, the recently elected “progressive” district attorney in Travis County, Texas (home to the city of Austin), enacted new policies calculated to encourage line prosecutors to pursue more-lenient approaches to bail and sentencing. 
  • In Kansas City, Mo., the mayor and city council recently enacted an overhaul of the city’s police budget that will divert funding from things like adding to the number of police on the beat to a so-called “Community Services and Prevention Fund.”
  • In Minneapolis, “community groups” have submitted a petition to amend the city’s charter via ballot initiative this November. The amendment would, according to an Associated Press report, “replace the police department with a new Department of Public Safety and shift authority over the police from the mayor to the City Council.”
  • A few weeks ago, in Philadelphia, a relatively small band of eligible voters handed “progressive” District Attorney Larry Krasner — who has vigorously pursued policies of non-prosecution and decarceration — a victory in the city’s Democratic primary.
  • In February, the Illinois state legislature passed (and its governor promptly signed) a package of bills that, among other things, eliminated cash bail, placed new restrictions on police pursuits, and prohibited police “chokeholds.” And in the state’s biggest city, the police department has adopted a new policy placing restrictions on foot pursuits. 

As I’ve noted before, that so many of these reforms have come after serious violent crime began to spike in 2020 undermines the idea that such spikes would naturally lead to backlashes in the form of widespread opposition to reform proposals and widespread support for more punitive responses to crime. 

Interestingly, the lack of a slowdown in the reform effort — let alone a backlash — does not seem to be driven by ignorance of the crime spike. Recent polling data indicate the public is acutely aware of the growth in urban violence. A Gallup poll published in late 2020 showed that Americans were more likely to perceive crime as on the rise than at any point since 1993; and recent Manhattan Institute surveys have found that “public safety and crime rates” consistently top the list of concerns of eligible voters in New York City. 

This leaves two possible explanations for the momentum that criminal justice and police reformers continue to enjoy, despite the crime spike. 

One is that many policymakers and members of the voting public don’t yet find plausible the assertion that depolicing, decarceration and crime spikes are intertwined such that the former two can cause the latter. Police and incarceration critics were certainly quick to the draw when it came to preemptively linking last year’s crime spike to the COVID-19 pandemic. I would note, however, that the pandemic was global in its impact — but the jump in criminal homicides was not. Moreover, the effects of the pandemic have become much less-pronounced as millions have received vaccinations and the country has opened back up for business. But violence levels remain elevated:

  • In Los Angeles, through June 5, homicides and shootings are up 21.6 percent and 51.5 percent year to date (YTD), respectively;
  • Through the end of May, homicides in Minneapolis were up over 100 percent YTD;
  • As of June 15, homicides in Dallas are up almost 11 percent over 2020, which also saw a spike in killings;
  • In Atlanta, through June 5, homicides and shootings are up 58 percent and 40 percent, respectively;
  • Philadelphia homicides are up 36 percent through June 14;
  • Chicago — which saw massive spikes in shootings and homicides last year — has seen those numbers tick up through June 13 by 5 percent and 18 percent, respectively;
  • New York City has seen homicides and shootings jump another 11.7 percent and 68.2 percent, respectively, through June 6.

The other reason we haven’t seen reform efforts lose momentum may be fear on the part of policymakers and voters, who worry about being labeled as insensitive or hostile to the concerns of the Black community in the wake of highly publicized, extremely controversial police killings that have fueled a toxic narrative: that the police and criminal justice systems more broadly are vehicles for racist oppression. 

A recent piece in The Economist warned that a reversal of incarceration trends would render George Floyd’s legacy “a return to mass incarceration and more thuggish policing,” which “would be to pile one tragedy on another.” After raising concerns about a local prison reform initiative, the Washington Post’s editorial board was accused of calling “for continued state-sanctioned cruelty driven by fear and misinformation.” It is now commonplace for vocal supporters of “reform” — particularly those on the left — to equate the voicing of concerns about law and order with racist dog-whistles, and to accuse those who point to cases that illustrate the downside risks associated with certain reform efforts of playing “Willie Horton” politics. 

So, just as reforms have raised the transaction costs of policing, it seems that reformers also have raised the social costs of expressing skepticism, which, in turn, clears the way for the more radical elements of the reform movement to proceed with their project. But who suffers?

The public must not allow itself to be bullied out of expressing genuine concerns about an incredibly troubling violent crime spike — one whose negative impact is likely as, if not more, unevenly distributed across racial groups as the enforcement statistics often latched onto by police critics. Unless we see a more widespread willingness to consider the possibility that the criminal justice system, in some ways, has gone from being too tough to not tough enough, I think we can expect the recent deterioration of public safety to last.

Rafael A. Mangual is a senior fellow and deputy director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and a contributing editor of City Journal.

Tags crime rates defund the police homicides violent crime

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