A violent crisis


A gunman opened fire on a Brooklyn subway, injuring 10 people and injuring others on Tuesday. Ten people were injured in a shooting at a South Carolina shopping center yesterday. A gang shooting this month in Sacramento killed six people and injured 12 more. New Orleans announced its bloodiest weekend in 10 years. Road shootings appear to be ongoing in some states.

These are examples of America’s recent violent turn. The homicide rate has risen nearly 40 percent since 2019, and violent crime, including shootings and other assaults, has generally increased. More tragedies, from mass shootings to minor acts of violence, are likely to make headlines as long as violent crime continues to rise.

Three explanations help to explain the increase in violence. The Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns have disrupted all aspects of life, including social services that can tame crime and violence. The high-profile police killings of 2020 and the protests that followed strained police-community relations. And Americans have bought a record number of guns in recent years.

Another explanation, discussed earlier in this newsletter, links these things: 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 in violent ways, Randolph Roth, a crime historian at Ohio State University, told me.

In addition to Covid and police brutality, increasingly polarized politics and the poor economic conditions in the country have also fueled this disagreement. That helps explain the homicide spike, as well as the recent rise in drug addiction and overdoses, mental health problems, car accidents and even clashes over masks on airplanes.

But given the footage from the past two weeks, I want to step back and focus in particular on trends in violent crime, using charts from my colleague Ashley Wu.

Experts pointed to several reasons for concern: not just the tragedies that made headlines, but also the continued rise in homicide rates in some cities and the ongoing problems that have contributed to more violent crime in the first place. But experts also see some potentially hopeful signs: recent declines in homicide rates in other cities, the easing of Covid-related disruptions and increasing distance from the more chaotic police-community relations of 2020.

It is too early to draw firm conclusions about the level of violence in 2022; crime trends usually take shape in the summer. But so far this year, the homicide rate is up 1 percent in major U.S. cities, and crime analyst Jeff Asher’s team says some places are reporting a sharp rise.

The main causes of the 2020-21 murder peak are still present in varying degrees. The weapons that Americans bought remain in circulation. While Covid cases have fallen 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 fraught, especially in minority neighbourhoods. “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 emergency aid programs, such as the child tax credit, is already raising poverty rates.

Inflation is particularly worrisome because it could encourage people to engage in property crime if they can’t keep up with increased spending, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. And “some of those robberies end up as murders,” he told me.

The old and new problems also create social divisions. In March, 75 percent of adults said they were dissatisfied with the way things were going in the US, up from 65 percent three years ago, before the pandemic, Gallup found.

The data shows some bright spots. The increase in reported murders for 2022 is lower than the increase from 2020-21. There are even fewer murders in several major cities.

“It’s too early to say,” Jamein Cunningham, a criminal justice expert at Cornell University, told me. “But it’s nice to have numbers that at least, relative to this time last year, suggest it could ease.”

The homicide rate is still 30 percent lower than 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, a senior fellow. at NORC at the University of Chicago.

As Covid cases decline, so will the effects of the pandemic on crime and violence. More distance from the police brutality and protests of 2020 could also reduce tensions between the police and the community. (This seemed to happen earlier: homicides peaked in 2015 and 2016 after protests against police brutality, then the homicide rate leveled off, before rising again in 2020.) And the social discord caused by those problems could fade.

Federal funding is also flowing to cities and states to fight crime. The details and implementation are important, but studies broadly suggest that increased support for police and other social services, now being adopted in many places, could help.

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  • Philadelphia’s newly reinstated indoor mask mandate goes into effect tomorrow.

  • Adults in New Jersey will be able to legally purchase recreational marijuana starting Thursday.

  • Earth Day is on Friday. President Biden will travel to Seattle to discuss his administration’s plans to combat inflation and climate change.

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