Many US cities are witnessing a rise in violent crime, made more disturbing by the youths increasingly involved. This crime wave isn't towering like those of the past, but it should act as a warning that a storm may be approaching.
Residents of Boston, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Washington, D.C., for example, probably feel it's become pretty dangerous in their cities – that kids especially are out of control, wielding guns, holding people up, and killing as if it were a part of everyday life. Indeed, violent juvenile crime has spiked in these and other places. In Boston, juvenile arrests for robbery rose 54 percent in 2005. Minneapolis has a higher increase in homicides committed by youths than by adults.
These juvenile troubles are part of the first nationwide increase in violent crime in five years – up 2.5 percent in 2005, according to the FBI. Still, such crime – murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault – is nowhere near the level it was 15 years ago.
That's not to sugarcoat the situation, but to show that the country is at a point where, if it acts now, it can prevent a crime tsunami as teen populations grow and gangs do, too.
The causes for the increase in juvenile crime vary. In the 1990s, strong economic growth helped check violent crime. But in Milwaukee, poverty has increased, and 41 percent of kids live in households with incomes below the poverty line – making robbery a temptation.
The causes also share some commonalities. A big one is budget cuts. With violent crime falling in the 1990s, and recession forcing belttightening in the early 2000s, law enforcement was ripe for state and federal budget cuts. America's police force has fallen by 8 percent in the past four years (Minneapolis lost almost 25 percent of its force over about five years.) Many cities also saw cuts in community programs vital in keeping kids off the street.
At the same time, gangs on the East and West coasts pushed into the Midwest. In Boston, gang members who served time are being released, and using kids to do their dirty work.
America knows that to solve these problems, policing alone is not enough. Before budget cuts and the complacency that accompanied low crime rates, cities emphasized "community policing," with officers working with schools and churches, for instance, while these and other institutions (and individuals) also made a greater effort at crime prevention. Communities realized they had to get to kids early – before they fell in with gangs and got comfortable with guns.
Today's quick and broad reaction by some cities shows they've learned these lessons. They're beefing up police presence, yes, but also community policing. Minneapolis recently reactivated its police department's juvenile crime division as well as team policing that includes cooperation with probation officers and US marshals. The city is also extending recreation center hours. Boston, meanwhile, will spend more on faith-based and community programs, summer youth activities, and gang prevention.
A full and quick response can check this particular crime spike. But only a commitment to carry on with community policing in safer times will prevent the next one.