Major city crime data show an increase in homicides across the country. Not every city is seeing increases, and the rates vary widely among them, but homicide is up roughly 18 percent nationwide, according to AH Datalytics. These preliminary data strongly suggest that the nearly three decades of steady decline in homicides nationwide have been interrupted over the past two years. Figuring out how to arrest and reverse this trend will only become more urgent as the nation continues to emerge from the pandemic over the summer, the hottest and thus typically deadliest time of the year.
Some have blamed efforts to “defund” the police for the increase in homicides. The allegations can highlight real deficiencies and valid criticisms of some positions held by protestors and activists. But however intuitive it may appear, the claim is mostly speculation with a heavy dose of confirmation bias.
Confessing my own bias as a supporter of significant police reforms, the simple truth is we don’t have enough data to definitively say what is causing the homicide rise. Indeed, one of the few potential causes we can actually rule out in several cities is defunding police, because many of the affected cities did not meaningfully reduce police department budgets, and more than half of the 50 largest major cities maintained or increased those budgets.
Cities like Atlanta have continually increased police budgets despite pressure to defund. Their homicide and other violent crime indicators are trending up over the past two years, despite larger budgets. Unsurprisingly, these violent trends have led to an even greater police budget increase in the upcoming fiscal year.
People familiar with public choice theory should recognize the problem: police will request larger budgets in the wake of both policy successes and failures. If crime is going down, the police must be doing something right so the government should fund more of it. On the flip side, if crime is going up, the police don’t have what they need so the government needs to increase the budget to reverse negative trends. Such budgeting rationale is not in any way unique to police departments, but the relative size of police budgets relative to other municipal spending makes the problem more acute. Moreover, the widespread treatment of police departments as municipal money pits is what defunders and other activists are trying to undo.
That said, Portland, Oregon is seeing a profound spike in homicides unlike any other U.S. city. Portland's problems should be studied by criminologists to understand what triggered a five-fold increase in homicides in one year. But, an outlier by definition, we’re not yet seeing anything like Portland elsewhere and thus we ought not to project their problems onto other U.S. cities.
And while the national homicide increase is nevertheless worrying, it is wrong to describe what is going on as a national crime wave. Some cities like Los Angeles are reporting overall crime decreases despite the homicide rise. Other cities, like Atlanta mentioned above, are reporting increased crime across the board. While there may be some national or more macro-level inputs that affect the number of crime incidents, it is important to remember that crimes tend to be very localized, often clustering in certain and often very small geographic areas. The local nature of crime (and thus crime prevention) has important implications for both the public and policymakers.
First, it is important for the general public to understand that, as a personal matter, most Americans face a vanishingly small risk of dying by homicide or being victims of severe street violence. Thinking so broadly of a “murder rate” is useful for big picture analysis, but out of context, it may appear that any random two Americans face the same risk of murder as any other. That’s just not true.
Although we don’t have good numbers yet on recent homicides, the street violence that typically claims the most lives is concentrated in segregated and impoverished neighborhoods in American cities. This is not to say people outside of these areas are immune to violence, particularly domestic violence and sexual assault, but the general public should not be fearful of violent victimization just because they hear homicides are on the rise.
But that means that in those areas where murders, shootings, and other severe social disruptions are not uncommon—areas which suffer from all sorts of socio-economic disadvantages apart from crime—the already intolerable level of general violence seems to be getting worse. While most Americans have little to fear from these numbers, those at high risk of serious violence may be in worse shape. Reducing risk for these individuals and communities is thus critically imperative for policymakers.
Defunders and other radical reformers demand fixing the endemic problems like access to housing, health care, and other neighborhood services and severely deemphasizing law enforcement. Defenders of the status quo tend to believe more policing and prosecutions are the keys to public safety. The answer is somewhere in the middle: alleviating community deficiencies paired with targeted, evidence-based police and non-police practices to prevent crime occurrences in the most affected areas.
It is plausible that police effectiveness has been somewhat hampered by the deep mistrust and resentment expressed in protests in the past few years. When people in communities beset by violent crime don't trust police, they are less likely to cooperate with investigations and thus serious crimes may continue unabated. However, it is important to understand that the mistrust in those communities long pre-dates recent protests and has been informed by both direct experiences with police and vicarious experiences recounted in their familial and social networks. Thus, the police have the responsibility to build trust in those communities not simply as a matter of public relations, but to improve community well-being.
Beyond that, what police can do right now is be present and visible—that is, not in unmarked cars or in plain clothes--where serious crime is clustering. This doesn't mean they should be stopping and frisking young men at random or searching for contraband to pad arrest numbers. Those policies sow more resentment and are likely counterproductive to public safety. Rather, they should be the guardians of the community that most people expect and want police to be, reacting to truly suspicious behavior and being ready to respond to emergent crises. (There are some who believe "de-policing" is spurring crime increases, but arrest data undermine this hypothesis.)
The worst outcome would be resorting to the old “tough on crime” policies and overpolicing strategies because too many people and their elected representatives become convinced of a pending national crime wave. Such a move would be based on fear, not evidence, and thus unlikely to make America’s most vulnerable any safer.