More mass shootings
A gunman opened fire in a Brooklyn subway, injuring 10 people on Tuesday and injuring others. Yesterday, a shooting in a mall in South Carolina left 10 people injured. A gang shootout this month in Sacramento left six dead and 12 injured. New Orleans announced its bloodiest weekend in 10 years. Road rage shootings appear to be on the rise in some states.
These are examples of America’s recent violent turn. Murders have increased nearly 40% since 2019, and violent crime, including shootings and other assaults, has increased overall. More tragedies, from mass shootings to small acts of violence, are likely to grab headlines as long as higher levels of violent crime persist.
Three explanations can explain the increase in violence. The Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have disrupted all aspects of life, including social services which can tame crime and violence. The 2020 high-profile police killings and subsequent protests have strained police-community relations. And Americans have bought a record number of guns in recent years.
Another explanation, discussed in this newsletter earlier, links these problems: a growing sense of social discord and mistrust. As Americans lose faith in their institutions and each other, they are more likely to lash out — sometimes violently, Ohio State University crime historian Randolph Roth told me.
Besides Covid and police brutality, the country’s increasingly polarized politics and poor economic conditions have also fueled this discord. This helps explain the spike in murders, as well as recent increases in drug addiction and overdoses, mental health issues, car crashes, and even confrontations over face masks on planes.
But given the filming of the past two weeks, I want to take a step back and focus on violent crime trends in particular, with the help of graphics from my colleague Ashley Wu.
Experts have pointed to several causes for concern: not only the tragedies that have grabbed the headlines, but also the continued rise in the murder rate in some cities and the persistence of issues that helped increase violent crime in the first place. . But experts are also seeing potentially promising signs: recent drops in murder rates in other cities, the easing of Covid-related disruptions and the growing estrangement from the more chaotic police-community relations of 2020.
The bad news
It is too early to draw firm conclusions on levels of violence in 2022; crime trends usually emerge in the summer. But so far this year, murders are up 1% in major US cities, and some places are reporting big increases, according to crime analyst Jeff Asher’s team.
The main causes of the 2020-21 murder spike persist to varying degrees. The weapons that the Americans bought remain in circulation. As Covid cases have plummeted and lockdowns have ended, new variants are still disrupting social services and life in general.
Relations between the community and the police are also still strained, especially in minority neighborhoods. “If there’s a fundamental breakdown in the community, the police just won’t be able to do an effective job,” said Charis Kubrin, a criminologist at the University of California, Irvine.
There are other reasons for concern: the worsening drug crisis could fuel violence between rival gangs and dealers. The end of pandemic-era federal aid programs, like the Child Tax Credit, is already increasing poverty rates.
Inflation is of particular concern because it could push people into committing property crimes if they can’t afford higher expenses, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. And “some of these thefts end up in homicides,” he told me.
Old and new issues also fuel social discord. In March, 75% of adults said they were unhappy with the way things were going in the United States, up from 65% three years ago, before the pandemic, Gallup found.
The good news
The data shows some positives. The increase in reported homicides for 2022 is less than the increase for 2020-2021. In several major cities, murders are actually down.
“It’s too early to tell,” Jamein Cunningham, a criminal justice expert at Cornell University, told me. “But it’s good to have numbers that, at least, compared to the same period last year, suggest that it might be easing.”
Murder rates are still 30% lower than they were during previous peaks between the 1970s and 1990s. “I don’t think the Wild West days of the 70s and 80s are coming back,” said John Roman , NORC Principal Investigator at the University of Chicago.
As Covid cases fall, the effects of the pandemic on crime and violence will also diminish. Greater distance from police brutality and protests in 2020 could also ease tensions between police and the community. (It seemed to be happening before: Murders spiked in 2015 and 2016 after protests against police brutality, then murder rates leveled off, before rising again in 2020.) And the social discord caused by these issues could start to fade.
Federal funds also flow to cities and states to fight crime. Details and execution are important, but overall studies suggest that more support for police and other social services, which many places are now adopting, could help.
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