Why have murder rates spiked so badly over the last 12 months? No one seems to know, and perhaps it is simply impossible to know at this point. We don’t have all the data, since the big uptick is quite recent; and we cannot even agree on what helped bring crime down so sharply in the past three decades. But it does seem to me that the rise is significant, and those who care about black lives might want to figure it out.
Here’s the NYT summary of the data, to start with:
Homicide rates in large cities were up more than 30 percent on average last year, and up another 24 percent for the beginning of this year, according to criminologists … Homicides in Portland, Ore., rose to 53 from 29, up more than 82 percent; in Minneapolis, they grew to 79 from 46, up almost 72 percent; and in Los Angeles the number increased to 351 from 258, a 36 percent climb … Homicides in Philadelphia are up almost 28 percent, with 170 through May 9, compared with 133 in the same period last year; in Tucson, Ariz., the number jumped to 30 from 17 through May 13, an increase of 76 percent.
By any measure, that’s a huge increase. Yes, we’re still in a relatively low crime environment. But the suddenness of the rise and its scale are striking.
So what is causing it? Prime among the explanations is Covid19. But this makes little sense. Lockdowns tend to depress crime, not exacerbate it. And globally, violent crime did indeed collapse, as streets emptied and public interaction declined. Murder rates were stable or fell all over the world. El Salvador, for example, regarded as one of the most violent countries on earth, saw a 20-year low in homicides. Our closest neighbors, Canada and Mexico, effectively trod water — with Canada up a few and Mexico down a few homicides over 2019. The US? A huge spike in murders — unique in the world. And the timing doesn’t quite work for Covid as the cause either: homicides surged last summer, long after Covid first hit and lockdown was first imposed.
Maybe poverty, caused by Covid? That doesn’t seem plausible either: “Residential burglary, larceny, and drug offense rates dropped by 24%, 24%, and 32% from the same period in 2019.” These property crimes would surely rise if people were desperate for money — and they didn’t. And 2020, because of an aggressive federal stimulus, actually made many of those struggling to make ends meet slightly less precarious than they were the year before: “[B]etween Dec. 2019 and Dec. 2020, the share of American adults experiencing food insecurity dropped from about 24% to 20.5%, the share having difficulty paying medical bills fell from nearly 19% to less than 15%, and the share experiencing utility shutoffs went down from 3.8% to 2.6%.”
One writer suggests that the fentanyl crisis is a big reason. But what’s striking about opioids is how little this drug trade is connected to street violence in the same way that, say, crack cocaine was. So much is online, or in someone’s medical cabinet, or available with a phone call. Fentanyl puts people to sleep, if they’re lucky. It doesn’t cause them to act violently and erratically, like meth or crack. And the obvious point: we’ve had huge increases in opioid supply and overdoses before, and none has been accompanied by a big rise in the murder rate.
Did it have to do with defunding the police? Since very little substantive defunding has yet taken place, and not nearly enough to measure any long-term consequence across various cities, this also seems far too early to tell. Murder rates soared in cities that had fully funded law enforcement; they soared in cities which pledged punitive cuts in funding; and they soared where some cuts were under way. Defunding may well increase homicide rates in the future; it’s just too soon to tell right now.
What else have we got? Well, surely the timing of the surge in murders counts. And it can be timed quite precisely, in fact: to the very end of May, before which there was little change and even some decline. The National Commission on Covid19 and Criminal Justice report shows what University of Utah researcher Paul Cassell calls a “structural break” in the data timed exactly to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent wave of mostly peaceful protests and subsequent looting, rioting and violence that raged across many cities. Before Floyd, no big increase in homicides, aggravated assaults, and shootings. After, a huge spike.
Of course, that is not causation. But it’s one hell of a correlation — and no other event seems relevant. It’s as if the Floyd murder, and the subsequent urban chaos, sent a signal: the cops are on the defensive. Which means murderers can go on the offensive. And once lawlessness establishes itself, it tends to compound. A few gang murders can soon morph into tit-for-tat urban warfare.
In Minneapolis, for example, in Cassell’s careful analysis, murder jumped after Floyd’s murder, but shootings and aggravated assaults also went through the roof. In Chicago, the murder rate was the same on 5/28/2020 as on 5/28/2019: 191 homicides compared with 192. Then the murder rate and shootings took a sharp leap upward, and stayed there. You see nearly the same pattern in Philadelphia. New York City is a less clear-cut case, with surges in murder before and after the Floyd killing, but with shootings increasing 177 percent after the protests and riots. Shootings may be a better indicator of the scale of violence, because not all attempted homicides succeed. Here’s a graph of shootings in Minneapolis last year:
As this murder wave took off, we also have to remember, major cities proposed cutting police budgets. New York City did so to the tune of $1 billion. Los Angeles and Minneapolis also saw deep cuts. Seattle, after considering a 50 percent decrease, settled for an 18 percent cut. In Washington DC, the mayor was happy to see “Defund The Police” painted on a street in the heart of the capital in letters so large you could read them from a plane. The message could not have been clearer.
Across America, many marchers and protestors yelled abuse at any cop they saw, and in some cities, they were given free rein, even to the extent of a no-go police zone. “ACAB” — “All Cops Are Bastards” — was routinely spray-painted. Mayors let the chaos go on — and elite institutions, like the New York Times, fired their own opinion editor for running a piece urging a federal intervention if the violence got even more out of hand. Non-white cops (a significant and rising number in many cities) were put in an incredibly tough spot.
After this relentless assault, regular police officers noticed. Many quit:
In Chicago, 560 officers retired in 2020 in a police department that had about 13,100 sworn officers as of March, records show. That’s about 15% more cops retiring than during the previous year, when the number of retirements rose by nearly 30%. In New York City, 2,500 cops retired last year, nearly double the number in 2019, according to the New York Police Department, which has about 34,500 uniformed officers. In Minneapolis, about 40 officers retired last year, and another 120 took leaves of absence. That’s nearly 20% of a police department.
But manpower was not the most significant factor. What truly mattered, Cassell argues, is that the police pulled back from the kind of aggressive, pro-active policing that has been shown to be most helpful in reducing fatal civilian shootings — but also most likely to lead to fatal encounters with the police. In Minneapolis, for example, “police stops and officer-initiated calls dropped more than half, use-of-force incidents fell by two-thirds while traffic-related incidents and patrols became far less common.” Residents complained that the cops were slow to come, or were in the neighborhoods with their windows up.
In New York City in June of 2020, it was the plainclothes cops proactively tackling street violence who were instantly targeted by the city itself: “about 600 officers in the elite unit, created with the mission of ridding the streets of illegal guns and stopping violent crimes, were ‘immediately’ reassigned to other duties. The Commissioner called the re-deployment a ‘seismic’ shift.” It sure was. A seismic shift toward vastly higher rates of homicides and shootings. (They did the same thing in Portland, abolishing the pro-active team of uniformed police tasked with preventing shootings. It was only after murder rates doubled in less than one year that the city hurriedly reinstated the unit.)
This kind of decision, along with bail reform, and confusing new regulations on how police should arrest suspects, caused NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan to complain that morale had been destroyed: “It’s set off a feeling on the streets right now that it’s okay to carry a gun, settle old disputes, and start shooting at one another. We’re seeing people get sprayed at parties… There’s an opinion out there that the cops aren’t going to stop them … There’s a feeling on the streets right now that if you fight a cop and get it on video, you’re going to have a payday.”
In Cincinnati, the assistant police chief explained: “There’s also the natural pullback by officers based on what we’re seeing in mainstream media and social media. For the last couple months, it’s almost as if policing in general has been vilified. That’s very difficult, the officers are dealing with that, and I think the proactive work has slowed down.” It wasn’t a policy of pull-back. But it was the reality among cops increasingly skittish toward risking their lives — because they feared getting vilified if something went wrong.
Cops can and perhaps should be blamed for this kind of reticence. They should do their job regardless of the pressures. But if that job has been abolished, it’s not their fault. And they are also human. The collective disparagement from so many in authority, the abuse on social media, the PTSD of trying to contain violent rioters day after day, enduring a hail of truly vile verbal abuse during even the peaceful protests: these take their toll. They haven’t all gone on strike. They haven’t all succumbed to the “Blue Flu.” Many have just internalized a new risk assessment.
Which means, it seems to me, that we have a provisional answer to our original question. The homicide wave began with the Floyd murder and has been sustained by the decision of many cops to refrain from the kind of pro-active policing that can lead to exactly the kind of incidents that can become viral — aggressive intervention against armed criminals before they kill. That helps explain why the crime wave is restricted to shootings and homicides — because other more mundane police activities do not carry the same kind of risk to the officer or perpetrator involved.
This is precisely what occurred in what’s called “The Ferguson Effect” — but this time, it may be happening on a national scale, as protests have covered the entire country, amid unprecedented pressure on the cops to avoid dangerous interactions.
Another way to test this hypothesis would be to see if fatal police shootings have declined. If cops are not pro-actively tackling potentially armed suspects, you’d expect they’d kill fewer of them, especially innocent bystanders. And, sure enough, there is real evidence for this!
The Washington Post database shows 392 police shootings so far this year, a pace that, if sustained, would amount to around 850 for 2021, down from 1,021 in 2020. That would be much, much lower than anything since 2015. Break the data out racially, and the picture is even clearer. 244 African-Americans were killed by cops in 2020. Only 72 have been killed so far in 2021 — which would suggest an annual toll of 160, an unprecedented decline. In 2020, 18 unarmed African-Americans were killed by cops; in 2021 so far, the number is four. If sustained, that’s a real shift for the better.
It’s worth reiterating at this point that this is a guess. We don’t know for certain why we are enduring a spike in homicides which seems increasingly durable. The full data are not available; key statistics here are provisional. But the best guess we have leaves us with a sobering thought. What if this is the trade-off?
What if we can indeed lower police shootings — but only if police stay out of exactly the proactive policing that makes them more likely? And what if the price of ending proactive policing is, logically, a huge increase in civilian homicides? A look at the comparative numbers of black deaths at the hands of cops (in 2019, for example, 250), and black deaths at the hand of civilians (in 2019, 7,484) is a sobering reality check. Black Lives Matter could be devastating news for actual black lives.
This is not an argument against police reform or even against shifting some core responsibilities — mental health incidents, for example — to other kinds of professionals. It is an argument that pro-active policing has been more important in restraining crime than many have acknowledged; that removing it, before reforming the entire system, is extremely dangerous; and that elite complacency in the face of lawlessness and destruction in the summer of 2020 helped ignite a cycle of murder that is very hard to unwind. When crimes are committed with impunity, more crimes will be committed. And the victims will not be at Yale.
So this scenario prompts a question of supreme irony: what if the final legacy of Black Lives Matter is that it actually succeeds in its core goal, and that in the future, far fewer African-Americans are shot by the cops. And what if the price of this symbolic victory is, in fact, a huge increase in the numbers of innocent black lives lost to civilian murder? That’s a trade-off worth discussing, before it becomes a new norm that’s very hard to undo.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: a contentious pod debate with Bryan Caplan over open borders; reader dissents over my analysis of Orwellian wokeness; more dissents over my defense of liberalism in the face of critical race theory; more dissents and assents over my debate with free-speech hero Jonathan Rauch; seven recommended pieces by other substackers; a classical-music mashup for a Mental Health Break; a Cool Ad with beards because why not; a sparkling view from an SF window and another from night-time Budapest; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
A subscriber writes:
I’m not writing with a dissent, but with thanks. Reading your weekly newsletter and listening to the podcast is consistently one of the best intellectual parts of my week. I work at a very highly ranked public university and I feel dejected by the intellectual sameness of my coworkers, the students, and even faculty. Reading the news and Twitter and (most) books provides little relief. My biggest complaint is that it’s all just so boring. Politicos may squabble at the margins on Twitter, but most of the rest of us just keep our mouths shut to get along. We avoid any topics that may spark a debate. We are so, so careful not to say anything interesting.
But not the Dish! It’s great.
Part of my job is to invite speakers to campus for events. But we can’t host anyone who students think is unacceptable, for fear of making them unhappy. It’s all so f’ing boring. I want to have “unhappiness is interesting” etched into the walls!
I’m a political theorist by training and spent nine wonderful years in undergrad and grad school reading Plato and Augustine and Tocqueville and Nietzsche and digging into what it means to be an imperfect human being in a fallen world. I look at students and faculty and staff and I know that if I asked just one or two good questions and they responded truthfully, I would reveal so much intellectual diversity and heterogeneity! But we can’t do that because disagreement about “core principles” (whatever those are) is considered tantamount to assault.
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New On The Dishcast: Bryan Caplan
Professor Caplan, who teaches economics at George Mason University, is the author of the graphic nonfiction NYT bestseller Open Borders. His views on immigration, nation-states, and democracy are extremely different from my own, so we debate all throughout the episode. Bryan has been the most recommended guest by our readers, who clearly want to see some fireworks on this issue. I had a lot of fun.
To hear three clips of my conversation with Bryan — on whether a country’s citizens should have any say over immigration; on whether adding a billion people to the U.S. is wise or feasible; and on whether voting is irrational “poetry”, as Bryan puts it — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.
Follow that link to reader responses to our pod with Jon Rauch, who drew the most email of any guest so far. Several of the responses side with his optimism over liberal democracy; several other readers share my gloom. See where you land.
Dissents Of The Week I: Orwell And The Great Awokening
After I criticized the rhetoric of wokeness, a reader finds that I’ve gone too far with some of my own rhetoric:
A key thrust of CRT’s attack on free speech is not simply to say that only some speakers can possess truth, but rather to say that expressing any offensive idea is tantamount to violence against the offended. This tactic becomes a trump card that shuts down debate. After all, no one wants to be on the side of violence!
I bring this up but because I wonder if CRT’s critics are using the same tactic. Look: you referred to “woke authoritarianism” a couple of weeks ago, and just last week David Brooks wrote about “soft totalitarianism,” channeling Rod Dreher. These words have quite a chilling effect, for nobody wants to be caught advocating dictatorship! But what you are usually describing — boardroom diversity mandates, campus protests — is a far cry from what “authoritarianism” and “totalitarianism” conventionally mean: they describe political systems where (i) elections are not free and fair; and (ii) the leader is above the law.
So: I wonder if you really contend that the left will use CRT to convert our government into an authoritarian or totalitarian one?
Read my response, and my response to two more dissents, here.
Dissents Of The Week II: Liberalism vs. CRT
A reader dissents over my column on critical race theory:
I too champion liberalism as you envision it. But in asserting, “The debate is about whether, in your deepest heart and soul, you are a liberal or an anti-liberal. And of those two options, I have no doubt where I stand. Do you?” — aren’t you imitating the anti-pluralistic, with-us-or-against us rhetoric that you are criticizing? Aren’t you being illiberal?
Read my response, along with two other dissents, here. And as always, keep the dissents coming (and please try to keep them concise, since we only have so much space): firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
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The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today.
See you next Friday.