Violent crime in the United States returns to the forefront of the political agenda
A bullet fired by an unstable man in Times Square on a Saturday in May ended up injuring a four-year-old boy playing with his family. It may even have changed the trajectory of the race to the mayor of New York – and altered a national discussion on crime and policing.
Within hours, Eric Adams, a retired police captain and mayoral candidate, used the scene as a backdrop for a press conference that made its claim as candidate for law and order. Adams rejected activists’ calls to “smash” police and instead promised to send more officers into the streets to tame the fury of the guns.
He seemed to be working: In Tuesday’s Democratic primary he picked up the most of the votes, reinforcing how a contest that began as a debate over how to revive a city hit by the coronavirus pandemic had been overwhelmed by concerns about crime and public safety.
The next day, at the White House, President Joseph Biden appeared to sing a similar melody. “Now is not the time to turn our backs on law enforcement,” Biden said, announcing measures to tackle gun violence – by helping communities employ more police officers to target illegal weapons. Looking to lead a promising line of Republican attacks, Biden said his administration “assumes the bad guys are doing bad things to our communities.”
Violent crime, which has been declining for a generation in America, is now back – and back on the political agenda after a national source of shootings and homicides.
Homicides will increase by 18 percent compared to this point in 2020 – a year when homicides will also increase – according to champion of 72 cities by New Orleans crime analyst Jeff Asher, and many experts expect the worst to come this summer.
In New York, shootings have grown 53 percent as of June 20, and more than 100 percent in the past two years. The 1,402 shooting incidents in Chicago over the same period have marked a 58 percent increase from 2019. In Atlanta, growing violence has given a new impetus to a push by residents of the wealthy Buckhead neighborhood to separate from the largest city to be able to form its own police departments.
Republicans are understanding the issue, denigrating illegality in “democratic cities” and blaming them for progressive demands to “defund” the police. This week’s party accused Biden and his fellow Democrats of doing “everything in their power to subvert law enforcement.”
But the violence is widespread and not limited to areas under democratic control. A database maintained by the Gun Violence Archive counted 26 mass shootings as of June 15 – from places like Newark, New Jersey and Washington, DC to Aurora, Colorado, Anchorage, Alaska and Albertville, Alabama .
“This exact same phenomenon happens in every city in the country – big, medium, small, democratic, Republican, red, blue – it doesn’t matter,” said Mike Lawlor, professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven who he also served as a Democratic member of the Connecticut House of Representatives. “Shots are everywhere.”
Most criminal justice experts believe the pandemic has played a role, either aggravating economic deprivation, closing down courts or blocking young people in crowded neighborhoods with few means of entertainment.
William Bratton, who led the New York and Los Angeles police departments, also blamed some of the criminal justice reforms aimed at reducing the prison population, which he believes is excessive. Among them: New York’s move to end cash bail for all but criminal offenders
The most politically charged suggestions for increased killings point to anti-police protests over the summer in response to the assassination of George Floyd, or a return to police activity as a result. But the data believe such simple explanations, according to Asher.
The increase in murder is happening in cities of all sizes, not just in places where protests are erupting, he said: “If you do the math comparing where the most protests were or where the most violent protests were, and homicide increase rates, there is just no relationship. ”
While shootings and homicides have increased, other crimes, such as robbery, have continued to decline over the past year. This led Lawlor to a more nuanced theory.
Shootouts, note, tend to be concentrated among individuals known to apply the law and often result from gang pay cycles. Police have become adept at stopping them in recent years by identifying likely perpetrators and then ruining trained community leaders to intervene.
Those face-to-face encounters to gather intelligence and build relationships were not possible during the pandemic – even less so after police killed last year Floyd damaged relations between minority communities and law enforcement .
“If the community doesn’t trust the police – and the police give up on a community – that breaks down,” Lawlor said. Meanwhile, officers have left the demoralized departments in large numbers.
For the Democratic Party’s moderate establishment, the escalation of violence presents a challenge to navigate progressive calls to “defund” – and even abolish – the police by avoiding the aggressive impulses of the 1994 crime bill signed by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton.
Biden spent much of his recent presidential campaign appealing to black voters for his past support of legislation that led to mandatory sentences, “three-strike” rules, and a racial discussion of “super predators” in the U.S. urban roads. Many Republicans, including Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, also expressed displeasure now.
While Biden promised more police this week, it also offered funding for job training programs. Not everyone was impressed. Kofi Ademola, counselor of Chicago’s anti-violence group Good Kids Mad City said the violence was “beautiful” when concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, but when moving to rich areas, “it’s when it becomes an emergency.”
“In view of Biden’s plan, you will see more dollars going into police than in so-called summer jobs or evidence-based jobs,” he added.
The group does not want more police, instead demanding a city ordinance that will take 2 percent of the police budget, about $ 35 million, and spend it on programs for youth employment, counseling and mediation, and the cessation of violence.
Christopher Hayes, a professor of urban studies at Rutgers University, fears that the most effective policies to reduce violence may not be the easiest to sell to voters.
“It’s conveniently political to watch this and say,‘ Things are out of control. We need to get down on this with a hammer, “Hayes said.” What is not convenient is to say, “a lot of people involved in this are poor.”
Assuming he becomes the next mayor of New York – a final bill is expected in weeks – Adams, who is black, may be the best case test of Democrats ’ability to deal with crime without creating toxic side effects. For months he has promised voters that he has a unique competence to target violent strongholds and remove weapons from the streets while, at the same time, reforming the department and repairing community relations.
As Adams said in a recent interview: “I support the closure of Rikers (Island Prison), but I also support the closure of the pipeline that feeds Rikers.”
Soon the New Yorkers – and the nation – will see if it’s possible.
Additional reports from James Politi in Washington and Claire Bushey in Chicago