Chicago still leads the nation in homicides, but here’s some much-needed context behind the numbers

August 13, 2017

Andrea Noble, Displayed with permission from The Washington Times

Violent crime is on the rise this year in some of the country’s biggest cities, according to statistics, which find Chicago still leads as the deadliest city while homicide cases have spiked in Baltimore and New Orleans.

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The 62 police departments that provided data for the Major Cities Chiefs Association’s midyear crime survey reported 3,081 homicides in the first six months of the year, an increase of 3 percent over the same time last year.

The departments recorded nearly 4,000 more aggravated assaults this year than at the same period in 2016, though reports of other violent crime – including rape, robbery and nonfatal shootings – remained about even.

National crime rates have dropped for two decades and remain far below peaks reached in the early 1990s, but violence in some of the country’s biggest cities has drawn attention to the problem.

The Trump administration says it takes the numbers seriously.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions repeatedly cited statistics showing a rise in crime as he announced Justice Department initiatives aimed at reducing gun violence, illegal drug sales or combating gangs. He recently called on law enforcement leaders to help “reverse this new surge in violent crime.”

Of the 62 departments that reported data, 32 said the number of homicides has risen and 35 said there were more aggravated assaults.

Chicago’s data showed it was about on the same pace as 2016 and still leads the country, with 328 people killed in the first six months of this year. It added nearly 100 more in July and early August, with the total at 423 as of Aug. 11, according to local news reports.

“The good news to take from that is Chicago isn’t getting worse,” said Ames Grawert, counsel at the Brennan Center Justice Program. “But the bad news is that it’s not getting better. You are not seeing the numbers fall back to earth yet.”

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Homicides in Baltimore were up 24 percent, with 170 killed from January to June. By Aug. 7, the number hit 211 homicides – with two people fatally shot during a community-organized cease-fire weekend.

Other cities reporting significant homicide increases this year include Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; Kansas City; Nashville, Tennessee; New Orleans; Philadelphia; and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“The uptick in murders is a continuation of the violent crime wave seen over the past several years,” said Justice Department spokesman Drew Hudson.

The suspected reasons for the upticks vary. The Justice Department points to gang conflicts, such as those surrounding the drug trade and heroin and opioid use, as its biggest obstacle in addressing homicides.

“A challenging priority for the Department of Justice is dismantling the criminal gangs, which function as the street-level drug distribution networks for transnational drug cartels and fuel much of the violence in our country through turf wars and violent drug trafficking,” Mr. Hudson said.

Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said that despite an uptick in homicides, the rate of growth is lower than recent years.

He said some city police departments point to gang violence as the driving force behind rising homicides while others have complained about the lack of opportunity for those returning from stints in prison. Unable to find jobs or stable housing, some former offenders return to lives of crime, he said. Other departments say easy access to firearms turns petty disagreements or street brawls fatal.

“In most of the cities, the concentration of this violence is in high-poverty neighborhoods. It’s not spread out throughout the whole population,” Mr. Stephens said.

New Orleans-based crime analyst Jeff Asher said a lack of police resources may play a role in his city.

The New Orleans Police Department, which lost 30 percent of its manpower from 2010 to 2016, recorded 96 homicides in the first six months of this year, up 28 from the same time last year. There were also 73 more nonfatal shootings, a total of 226, halfway through the year.

Mr. Asher estimates that the city is on pace to have 40 percent more shootings by the end of the year.

But several cities – including the District of Columbia, Houston and Atlanta – with upticks in homicides in 2016 reported less deadly violence this year.

In New York City, which did not submit data to the chief’s association, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently touted 2017 as “the safest year on record.” Major crimes were down 8 percent and homicides down 20 percent, with 165 recorded as of Aug. 6.

“The question is what the ceiling, what’s the floor and what’s the cause?” Mr. Asher said. “All of these cities belie a simple answer.”

To stem violent crime on the national level, the Justice Department has embraced policies aimed at targeting violent offenders for harsher punishment, dismantling criminal gangs and strengthening enforcement of federal immigration laws.

Mr. Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to charge defendants with the most serious provable charges possible – a move likely to result in more frequent use of mandatory minimum sentences and an increase in the number of people in federal prisons.

The Justice Department also has sought to compel cities to provide more aid to federal immigration agents as they work to locate and deport illegal immigrants, with conditions on cooperation for some grant funding.

Some cities, including Chicago, have balked at the requests. They say immigrant communities are less likely to report crimes if they fear interaction with police could lead to deportation.

While grant funding may be at risk to cities that decline to cooperate, the department is still committed to providing other forms of aid, said Mr. Hudson. The department this year sent additional agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to Chicago to help investigate gun crimes and to stop the flow of illegally possessed guns in the city.

“The Department of Justice is committed to working with law enforcement partners to reduce violence – not just through grant funding – but if jurisdictions deliberately and intentionally adopt policies that are hostile to and obstruct the rule of law, they create an even more dangerous environment that will not be fixed by simply throwing more money at a lawless system,” Mr. Hudson said.

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