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Violent crime spiked at an unprecedented level in 2020. Preliminary data shows that homicides increased somewhere between 25 and nearly 40 percent last year, the largest year-to-year jump on record. That trend has shown no sign of reversing in the first few months of 2021.
Last year was obviously disruptive in many ways — a global pandemic, an economic collapse, an increased spotlight on police conduct — but experts are divided on how exactly these factors may have contributed to the surge in homicides. That uncertainty has raised concerns that while last year was an outlier in so many ways, the increase in violent crime that started in 2020 may not be.
Polls taken over the course of the past three decades show that Americans generally believe that crime is getting worse year after year, when in fact the opposite has happened. The U.S murder rate has been cut in half since the early 1990s. Even with a historic uptick in killings, last year’s murder rate was still substantially lower than any year between 1970 and 1995. Still, any increase in violent crime is worrying. Politicians, academics and law enforcement experts have offered a variety of solutions to ensure that 2020 was an aberration and not the start of a dangerous trend.
Why there’s debate
Many conservatives and law enforcement leaders say the rise in violent crime is a direct result of the police reform movement that emerged following protests across the country last summer. They argue that intense scrutiny on police behavior has led to counterproductive changes to use-of-force policies, made officers hesitant to use crime prevention tactics and fractured the already tenuous relationship between police and the communities they serve. Reformers are “focused on a bunch of things that are going to make it harder for police to do their jobs and make it easier for violent criminals to continue committing crimes,” Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan said.
Liberal lawmakers and activists argue that the spike in homicides shows how poorly suited law enforcement is to addressing the root causes of violence. A better strategy, they argue, is to fund violence-prevention programs staffed by people who understand and can examine the complex forces that lead to killings in specific communities. Many go further by arguing that the only way to truly prevent violence is to focus on the poverty and instability that push people in vulnerable communities to crime in the first place.
Some experts are hopeful that violent crime will trend downward on its own once the pandemic has fully subsided and the economy returns to normal. A small number argue that the various factors that lead to crime are so complicated that it’s essentially impossible to identify one single solution.
The debate over how best to respond to the rise in violent crime has already become a flash point in elections across the country, including the race to replace Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York. Barring an unexpected drop in the murder rate in the coming months, crime will likely be one of the central issues as Republicans seek to regain control of Congress in next year’s midterms.
It’s possible that violent crime will drop again once the pandemic is over
“Experts caution it’s simply been a very unusual year with the Covid-19 pandemic. That makes it difficult to say what, exactly, is happening with crime rates. ... That offers a bit of good news: It’s possible that the end of the pandemic will come and homicide rates will fall again, as they generally have for the past few decades in the US.” — German Lopez, Vox
Misguided criminal justice reform policies must be reversed
“Tell criminals that they won’t be prosecuted for their crimes and they’ll go right on committing crimes. It’s that simple. Sooner or later it will turn around. Because it has to. Because people will demand it.” — Tom Wrobleski, SI Live
Police departments need their budgets restored
“Many departments are being slashed ... dramatically. … This has happened in several cities across the country, and it is no accident that violent crime is surging in them. This may be of no moment to the anti-police ideologues, but it distresses many residents of the communities that have become laboratories for this progressive ‘life without cops’ experiment.” — Editorial, National Review
Americans’ faith in government needs to be restored
“Much of the research on homicide rates emphasizes that people don’t start killing one another simply because the economy tanks or because there’s a national emergency — a pandemic, for example. … Fixing the problem will require much more than more cops and fewer guns. It will take a dramatic revival in people’s faith that the political system can address the nation’s troubles.” — Stephen Mihm, Bloomberg
The only way to truly root out violence is to invest in vulnerable communities
“We must reimagine how we respond to violence. Producing true public safety requires better prevention by expanding economic development, affordable housing, early childhood education and treatment for people who have experienced the trauma of violence — all of which have been linked to future criminal behavior.” — Marc Schindler and Ryan King, The Hill
Violence should be treated as a public health crisis
“We should think about public safety the way we think about public health. No one would suggest that hospitals alone can keep a population healthy, no matter how well run they might be. A healthy community needs neighborhood clinics, health education, parks, environments free of toxins, government policies that protect the public during health emergencies, and so much more. Health isn’t just about hospitals; safety isn’t just about police.” — Editorial, Washington Post
Criminal justice reform is needed to undo the harms of ‘tough on crime’ policies
“As long as crime is met primarily with incarceration instead of being treated as a public health crisis, the current criminal legal system will continue to drive crime, not prevent it.” — Reggie Shuford, Philadelphia Inquirer
Community-based violence prevention is the most effective strategy
“There are proven ways to tamp down the violence. We know community-based violence-intervention programs can help. In fact, pandemic-forced cutbacks in such on-the-ground peacekeeping may be a large part of the explanation for the surge in killings.” — Paul Carrillo, Los Angeles Times
The causes of crime are too complex for there to be any one answer
“The deeply uncomfortable truth about crime in American cities is that there's a lot no one knows about why it happens and how to prevent it. There are too many variables, too many moving parts and policies, and too many nuances and caveats to every possible theory. Easy answers will only get you so far.” — Aaron Gordon, Vice
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