Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes ofwebsite accessibilityHomicides spike in dozens of major cities in 2020 as other violent crimes fall | WSYX
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Homicides spike in dozens of major cities in 2020 as other violent crimes fall

Attorney General William Barr speaks during an event on "Operation Legend: Combatting Violent Crime in American Cities," in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Attorney General William Barr speaks during an event on "Operation Legend: Combatting Violent Crime in American Cities," in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Murder rates have risen in many American cities this so far year, even as other types of violent crime dropped, but criminologists cautioned there are no easy explanations for why killings are up in some cities but not others, nor are there simple solutions to curb homicides.

A Wall Street Journal analysis of available crime data for the first seven months of 2020 found homicide rates are up by double-digits in 36 of the nation’s 50 largest cities, with an average increase of 24%. Shootings and gun violence have also risen this year in major cities, but many other kinds of violent crime have fallen.

Chicago has been the hardest-hit and other cities with existing crime problems have seen a significant uptick in homicides. However, some communities that are historically less violent like Omaha and Phoenix are now experiencing the same trend.

Dozens of other large cities saw homicide rates fall this spring, making it even harder to draw clear conclusions. Also, in places like Chicago and New York, while murders are rapidly rising, overall violent crime rates are down from 2019.

Researchers at the Council on Criminal Justice recently found reports of residential burglaries and drug offenses plummeted during the pandemic in 27 major cities, but homicides and aggravated assaults rose by about one-third in late May and June. Chicago, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee faced the biggest increase in murders.

It is far too soon to tell if all this represents the beginning of a sustained trend, particularly since results vary widely from city to city. The highly anomalous events of the last few months in most of the country further complicate the debate over what the data means.

President Donald Trump has cast blame for recent violence on Democrats, but the latest data suggests this is a bipartisan problem. According to The Wall Street Journal, major Republican-run cities like Miami and San Diego have faced double-digit increases in homicide rates, as well as San Antonio and Las Vegas, which are overseen by independents.

“I can’t figure out why some cities are having this big increase while others are trending downward,” said Christopher Herrmann, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former New York Police Department crime analyst supervisor. “There’s no magic bullet that tells that story.”

Cities were shut down for weeks or even months starting in mid-March as states struggled to contain the coronavirus pandemic, with schools, courthouses, and nonessential businesses closed. Millions of adults and children were stuck at home with social and economic tensions growing.

As states began to ease lockdowns in May, the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police set off weeks of protests and sometimes violent unrest across the nation, leading to calls for policing reform or outright defunding of police departments. Officers under increased scrutiny found some of their tactics restricted as they grappled with public distrust and hostility.

By late June, new coronavirus infections were surging in many states, slowing progress toward an economic recovery and preventing Americans from returning to normal life. New city and state budgets took effect in early July, and many communities slashed spending on policing and public safety in response to pandemic-driven revenue shortfalls and public outrage at law enforcement.

The latest data suggests murders were on the rise in many cities through all this turmoil, but they were falling in others. Some communities saw a precipitous spike in killings in June soon after the protests began, but others had higher-than-average homicide rates through April and May too.

The Council on Criminal Justice report concluded the pandemic and the protests likely contributed to the upward trend in homicides, and addressing both might be essential to restoring safety.

“In our view, subduing the COVID-19 pandemic is a necessary condition for halting the rise in violence. In addition, both the rise in violence and social unrest are likely to persist unless effective violence-reduction strategies are coupled with needed reforms to policing,” the report by researchers Richard Rosenfeld and Ernesto Lopez stated.

Rosenfeld and Lopez noted homicides and violent crime also rose in 2015 and 2016 amid a wave of protests against police brutality and scrutiny of police tactics. While some analysts have attributed those increases to either a pullback by law enforcement or a loss of trust in police in communities, they stressed evidence regarding that surge in violence is still inconclusive.

“It remains unclear whether either of these theories explains the previous rise in violence, much less today’s increase,” they wrote. “What is clear is that there is no simple connection between protests against police brutality and violent crime.”

According to Herrmann, many factors may have contributed to the uptick in homicides in some cities after the Floyd protests began, including a typical seasonal variation criminologists expect in the summertime. Police morale is down, and the shifting of law enforcement resources to police massive protests in places like New York City may have left some high-crime neighborhoods under-protected.

“This is one of the unfortunate indirect results of the protests,” he said. “You’re drawing resources away from higher-crime areas solely to kind of babysit the protesters.”

The pandemic has presented unique challenges for law enforcement, as well, and high levels of transmission in many communities may still be preventing police from resuming normal operations.

“With the COVID pandemic, when we scale back our presence in the community, we scale back our community policing initiatives because we're worried about interacting and we’re worried about the wellness of our workforce. It hampers us,” Cincinnati Police Department Assistant Chief Paul Neudigate told WKRC.

Neudigate also observed citizens who normally report crimes were largely working from home and community groups that typically do outreach in high-crime areas were also sidelined by the pandemic.

Some police departments have pointed to an increase in gang violence during the pandemic. An analysis of police data by New York City officials leaked to The New York Times indicates a failure to make arrests in gang shootings there has led to reprisals and escalating bloodshed.

Fresno, Calif. Police Chief Andy Hall recently placed blame for his city’s 71% increase in shootings and 64% increase in stabbings since April partly on the release of inmates from prisons due to the coronavirus. He also claimed criticism of police and lack of support from elected officials is a factor.

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"I support the Police Reform Commission and their efforts to improve community policing," Hall said last month, according to KMPH. "However, I hope these efforts are not at the expense of holding those accountable who prey upon our citizens. Effective community policing requires a significant investment in your police department."

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