Four major US cities are seeing a surge in homicides — but not for the reasons you might think

Four major US cities are experiencing a surge in homicide rates and have neared or exceeded the numbers from the 1990s, according to a study from The Wall Street Journal.

The publication looked at homicide data stretching back to 1985 and found that murder rates in Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Memphis now look like numbers from the 1990s: an era wrought with gang violence and drug-trafficking.

The current spikes, however, were attributed in part to other factors — like poverty and unemployment, and diminishing police-community relations.

Here are a few facts from The Journal’s analysis (emphasis ours):

  • In 2016, murders in Chicago grew to its highest rate since 1996, with nearly 28 homicides per 100,000 residents. Five neighbourhoods that make up less than 10% of Chicago’s population represented 1/3 of its homicide rate in 2016. Additionally, as of Friday, there were a total of 330 shootings this year, compared to 324 during the same period in 2016.
  • Also in 2016, Memphis matched its highest rate of murders based on the data going back to 1985 with 32 per 100,000 residents.
  • Baltimore is on track this year for a record high in murder rates since the 1970s, with 47 killed in the first seven weeks.
  • In Milwaukee, 17 people have been killed so far this year, compared to nine from 2016. According to Chief Ed Flynn of the Milwaukee Police Department, about half of the city’s violent crimes stemmed from 10% of neighbourhoods.

Although 27 of the nation’s 35 largest cities experienced a per capita rise in homicide rates since 2014, The Journal reports that compared to the 1990s, most of them are still relatively low. For instance, two of the largest cities, New York and Los Angeles, have seen a long-term drop in the number of homicides.

Officials also reported that in the case of the four cities experiencing murder-rate spikes, the downtown areas of those cities, which have benefited from gentrification, remained somewhat insulated. Murders were mostly concentrated within poorer inner-city neighbourhoods.

“It’s likely that local drug markets are playing an important role,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri. St. Louis told The Journal. Additionally, Rosenfeld blamed the communities themselves, suggesting they do not cooperate with police and said “police disengagement” is also a problem.

The Journal’s findings pointed to higher rates in poverty and unemployment as a contributing factor in rising homicide rate in the four cities in question. That assessment counters the belief that cities with more police officers on the streets see lower murder rates as a result.

Baltimore recruits more police officers per 10,000 residents than New York and Milwaukee and Memphis are two of the ten cities that have the most officers per capita, yet Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Memphis are seeing record homicide rates.

NYPD help community
In a viral photograph from 2012, an NYPD officer assists a shoeless man by providing him with socks and new boots. NYPD

In order to combat the rising figures, cities like Chicago and Baltimore are sending officers to New York to receive further training. These officers would train under the NYPD’s community-policing initiative, where instead of primarily responding to emergency calls, officers would spend 1/3 of their day establishing a relationship with the community and addressing low-level offenses.

If the lower homicide rates in New York and Los Angeles are any indication of the success of these programs, cities like Chicago and Baltimore may see a drop in homicide numbers. Police chiefs from both New York and Los Angeles have attributed their lower rates to programs like the NYPD’s Neighbourhood Policing Plan, which was written by former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, who also served three terms as police chief at the Los Angeles Police Department.

“We have known since the 1960s that cops running from call to call simply do not have the time to engage with communities and individual residents in any meaningful or problem-solving way,” the plan reads,

“As [officers] learn about their sectors — and about the people who live in, work in and visit them — they will be able to better distinguish the good actors from the bad and to develop a degree of detailed knowledge about crime and disorder,” Bratton wrote.

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