Newly released FBI data show that the homicide rate in the United States increased meaningfully in 2015, marking the end of a historic 20 year decline. The overall homicide rate increased 11% in the United States, which is the biggest percentage increase in homicides since 1971.
Make no mistake: this is a big deal. The 20 year macro trend of decreasing homicides and other violent crime is ending. The cycle is ending and a new one is beginning. The new cycle isn’t nearly as nice as the old one.
Murders are up 11%. All forms of violent crime are up 3.9%. This isn’t just a case of increased gun homicides. More rapes occurred in 2015 than in 2014.
And this is not just an isolated trend. It’s nation-wide. It’s true that Chicago which has become a war zone, but while the increase in violent crime in America is largely an urban phenomenon, it’s broad-based. Just as cities led the decline in homicides they’re also leading the resurgence. The New York Times has a great analysis piece highlighting key trends in the data that was just released by the FBI.
Some cities are much worse than others. Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis and Las Vegas stand out as having the worst increases but the trend is broad-based. While New York City’s homicide rate didn’t change meaningfully in 2015 even cities like Anchorage, Alaska saw increases.
From the article:
The [FBI’s] findings confirm a trend that was tracked recently in a study published by the National Institute of Justice. “The homicide increase in the nation’s large cities was real and nearly unprecedented,” wrote the study’s author, Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who explored homicide data in 56 large American cities.
It’s hard to explain a change in a macro trend if you didn’t understand what was driving the trend in the first place. There’s still no consensus about why the murder rate began falling in the late-nineties.
Steven Pinker even argues in the excellent Better Angels of our Nature that the decline in violence is just part of one great human pacification megatrend. The guys who wrote Freakonomics argue that the decline in violent crime was a delayed effect of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.The decline might have been spurred by a change in police strategy introduced by Bill Bratton and his focus on broken windows theory. Still others go further and argue that it was a result of “proactive policing,” a euphemism for a bundle of aggressive police tactics that include the infamous Stop and Frisk practices pioneered by the NYPD.
Since no one can agree about what caused the decrease and because the trend reversal is relatively new there aren’t really any good theories about what’s going on.
But James Comey, Director of the FBI, claims to know what’s going on.
Almost exactly a year ago Comey gave a speech at the University of Chicago in which he claimed to have the answer:
Maybe it’s the return of violent offenders after serving jail terms. Maybe it’s cheap heroin or synthetic drugs. Maybe after we busted up the large gangs, smaller groups are now fighting for turf. Maybe it’s a change in the justice system’s approach to bail or charging or sentencing. Maybe something has changed with respect to the availability of guns.These are all useful suggestions, but to my mind none of them explain both the map and the calendar in disparate cities over the last 10 months.But I’ve also heard another explanation, in conversations all over the country. Nobody says it on the record, nobody says it in public, but police and elected officials are quietly saying it to themselves. And they’re saying it to me, and I’m going to say it to you. And it is the one explanation that does explain the calendar and the map and that makes the most sense to me.Maybe something in policing has changed.
In today’s YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime? Are officers answering 911 calls but avoiding the informal contact that keeps bad guys from standing around, especially with guns?
I spoke to officers privately in one big city precinct who described being surrounded by young people with mobile phone cameras held high, taunting them the moment they get out of their cars. They told me, “We feel like we’re under siege and we don’t feel much like getting out of our cars.”I’ve been told about a senior police leader who urged his force to remember that their political leadership has no tolerance for a viral video.
Comey is saying three things here: that he believes the “proactive policing” explanation for the macro decrease in violent crime, that Black Lives Matter has caused police officers to change their behavior, and that this behavioral change is ending the error of proactive policing and that the end of the proactive policing era is causing the end of the pacifying trend in America.
Comey’s argument is lazy, irresponsible and disquieting.
The proliferation of cameraphones and social media and Black Lives Matter have shown a spotlight on a troubling pattern of police manslaughter — and perhaps homicide — that’s probably been going on for centuries. Police manslaughter and homicide are inexcusable and it is the public’s rightful duty to hold its law officers to account for the misuse and abuse of the power that has been invested in them.
To suggest that holding those who unlawfully kill the people they are sworn to protect accountable for their actions is causing the murder of Americans is incendiary and wrong. The FBI should be seeking to understand the true drivers of the increase in violent crime and working with police forces around the country to reverse the trend.
Encouraging police officers to persist in aggressive, racist and dangerous tactics because they “protect” the public doesn’t accomplish anything. We are never going back to a pre-Black Lives Matter world. That is a good thing. It’s Comey’s and the law enforcement community’s job to continue to protect American lives, even if they must now do so under increased scrutiny.
The data is troubling. America is a much safer place today than it has been in decades. But the trend is now going in the wrong direction. We must rally and fix the problem quickly, and these kinds of distractions will not help us.