Spike in violent crime: Why you shouldn't worry

Homicide rates have jumped sharply in several major cities across the country, but experts say they do not see evidence that America's two-decade drop in crime is being erased.

Jim Bourg/Reuters
A young boy is stopped by police tape at the crime scene where two men were shot in West Baltimore on May 30, 2015. Local media have reported 40 murders in Baltimore since the April rioting over the death of 25-year-old resident Freddie Gray and shootings continue regularly in his West Baltimore neighborhood.

Murders are on the rise in several major US cities, amid increasing scrutiny of urban law enforcement after recent police shootings of unarmed men around the country.

Baltimore’s murder rate in May was the highest in more than 40 years, while fatal shootings in New York are up 20 percent so far in 2015.

But while triple digit percentage increases in Milwaukee and a more than 50 percent jump in Houston might make for arresting headlines, criminal justice experts say they don’t currently see a reason for the public to be alarmed. For one thing, part of the reason the percentages look so high is because violent crime, including murder, has dropped so much since the 1990s. (For example, Milwaukee saw 63 murders through May, up from 31 in 2014 – but that is still well below the average from the 1990s.) And it is not at all clear that this is the beginning of a long-term increase. So far, the spikes of violence have been isolated to certain cities, while crime continues to fall in others, such as Los Angeles and Dallas.

Nor can one bad month – even one like the one Baltimore had – undo two decades of progress.

“I think it’s unfortunate when the media talks a lot about these crime spikes.... It tends to scare the public,” says Inimai Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. “A lot of people don’t even know there was a massive crime decline.”

Ms. Chettiar says she does not currently see signs of a long-term trend in increasing violence in the US. Also, she adds, weather is one of the best “short-term predictors” of violence: Crimes typically rise during the hot months, creating a summer spike.

“I don’t think it’s a crime wave – it’s probably just a normal fluctuation that happens,” she says.

Baltimore, which has cut its homicides in half since the 1990s, is not willing to wait to see if May was an anomaly. On Wednesday, the police commissioner announced that his office is asking for more federal resources, including prosecutors and law enforcement, to help the city respond to the jump in violent crime. There were 43 homicides in May, the most violent month in the city since August 1972. May also was also the same month riots broke out after Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained while in police custody.

In an interview with CNN, one Baltimore police officer, who was not named, said that the increase in murders in Baltimore is the result of officers losing confidence in their chain of command, taking less initiative, and "refusing to follow their marching orders."  

At a press conference Wednesday, however, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts attributed the spike in murders to additional gang violence, not a slowdown.

“Collectively, we will return this city back to normal. Together we’re here to collectively say we’re serious about this fight and we’re serious about bringing people to justice,” he said.

New York, where murders are up 20 percent over last year, is also taking action to step up enforcement. It will launch its "All Out" program next week, deploying 330 extra officers to crime-ridden neighborhoods, The New York Times reports. That’s a month earlier than the program began last year.

But even with the increase in murders during the first five months of the year, New York still on track to finish 2015 at roughly half of the city's murder rate in the 1990s, which routinely surpassed 2,000. (Crime in New York is also down 11 percent in other major crime categories, according to the Daily News, including burglary, robbery, rape, larceny, and auto theft.)

"What goes down generally comes back up," says James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston. "There are certain cities that have had short term spikes, but we would not be noticing it were it not for fact that we have seen some successes over the past few years."

In fact in 2013, homicide rates hit historic lows, according to data provided by police departments in the 10 cities with the highest homicide rates that year. And in 2014 murder rates dropped "precipitously" in some major cities, The Washington Post reports.

For his part, Dr. Fox says he sees "nothing systemic" going on in New York or Baltimore.

"It's all a matter of what you compare it to,” he says. “A few bad weeks can make the percentage change go way up because the numbers are relatively small, but if you wait for the whole year those big spikes turn into little spikes."

However, one New York criminal justice expert blames the rise in killings on the city’s decision in 2014 to end the stop-and-frisk practices that critics said unfairly targeted minority neighborhoods, as well as what he sees as a willingness by the public to “demonize” police officers.

"I’ve been on record from the very beginning, as early as last May, that getting rid of stop, question, and frisk and demonizing police is going to lead to more violence," says Joseph Giacalone, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and a former detective in the New York Police Department.

Professor Giacalone says the ending of stop-and-frisk is part of a larger shift from "proactive" policing to "reactive" policing in the city. Now, he adds, police are sitting in their cars, listening to the scanner and "waiting for things to happen."

"The police using stop, question, and frisk was a deterrent from the bad guys carrying guns," he says.

Police stops have declined from a high of more than 685,000 in 2011 to just over 46,000 in 2014, according to data from the New York Civil Liberties Union, with just over 7,000 stops in the first quarter of 2015.

Giacalone acknowledged that New York’s murder rate is still barely half what it was in the 1980s, but adds that an increase in crime – however marginal – is always something politicians have to address.

"The public are very fickle," he says. "The fear of crime is all you need. You don't even need all the numbers."

Indeed, the public's fear of crime is something that criminologists have been researching for decades, ever since a report from President Lyndon B. Johnson's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice noted that "The most damaging of the effects of violent crime is fear, and that fear must not be belittled.”

A 2009 study added that "many more people experience fear of crime than experience an actual criminal victimization." And Mark Warr, a criminologist at the University of Texas, Austin, said in a 2000 study that such fears can have severe social and economic consequences for cities.

"The single most common reaction to fear of crime in the United States is spatial avoidance; that is, staying away from places that are perceived to be dangerous," wrote Professor Warr. Such social behavior can have significant consequences unrelated to crime, he added:

Such habits of avoidance must inevitably affect commerce, road use, leisure activities, and social interaction. Retail businesses that are located in putatively dangerous areas are likely to suffer a shortage of customers, and reputedly dangerous neighborhoods are likely to find themselves socially isolated.

An example of this dynamic can be found in St. Louis, which is also recovering from sometimes violent protests after the high-profile shooting last August of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, a suburb of the city. A grand jury found no probable cause to indict the officer last November.

The city saw a 33 percent increase in homicides from 2013 to 2014, but most of the murders occurred in eight neighborhoods. One of the neighborhoods was E.G. Wells-Goodfellow, where the Times reported that "more than a third of the houses are abandoned, [and] liquor stores and churches are sprinkled among boarded-up shops."

Fox says it will be impossible to know if the two-decade crime decline is ending until crime starts consistently increasing again. Coverage of the various crime spikes in major cities, he says, means the cities are "a victim of their own success."

"We don’t really know when we hit bottom," he adds. "We won’t know until some time from now – and I don’t mean five months into 2015."

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Joseph Giacalone's surname.]

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