Cities, experts struggle with rising murder rates

Officials in Baltimore announced new steps Monday to combat rising murder rates in the city in the wake of the deadliest month there in decades. (WBFF)

Officials in Baltimore announced new steps Monday to combat rising murder rates in the city in the wake of the deadliest month there in decades, as police chiefs from major cities across the U.S. met to discuss ways to address spikes in violent crime in their communities so far in 2015.

Experts were uncertain, however, whether the recent increases in homicides in Baltimore and elsewhere represent an ominous trend or a short-term statistical anomaly. There is also disagreement about what is causing the rise and what should be done about it.

Special agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Marshals Service and the U.S. Secret Service will be embedded with the Baltimore police homicide unit for the next 60 days, joining 20 ATF agents already working with city detectives.

"We are increasing the resources, we are increasing the collaboration and increasing the partnership at all levels. This is our next step in our all-hands-on-deck approach to decreasing violence," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at a press conference.

The ATF is also providing ballistics examinations and an FBI analyst is working with the police analytical intelligence section.

“How much they can help them is hard to say,” said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore, but he added that local police should be reaching out to any agencies they think can assist them.

Whatever the effect, Ross said Monday’s announcement also helped by showing the public police are doing something about the rising violence.

“It keeps that kind of information in front of the public so that Baltimore’s attempts to address the high homicide rates is not being ignored,” Ross said.

“I think everybody’s hoping that August is somehow going to be quiet, but I don’t know if that’s really going to happen.”

Baltimore saw more homicides in July than it has in any month since 1972, bringing the annual total to date to 192 homicides, 60% of which occurred in the last three months.

"The only people making good now are the morticians," Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) said Monday. "And I say our city is better than that. It's not just the murders and the shootings. I'm begging you, put your guns down."

The city was the site of days of unrest, rioting, and looting in April following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody.

Homicide rates are also up in other major cities in 2015, including New York, Washington, Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, and New Orleans.

Some attempting to explain the increased violence have been quick to point fingers at the protests and criticism that followed the deaths of unarmed black civilians at the hands of white police officers in several high-profile incidents over the last year.

Heather MacDonald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, wrote in the Wall Street Journal in June that a “Ferguson effect” is occurring because of the anger and criticism police have faced since the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri last August.

MacDonald suggested that police are being less aggressive in proactive law enforcement activity out of fear of prosecution and protests, and as a result criminals have become emboldened.

Other experts are skeptical of the notion that police would stand down from doing their jobs in the face of media criticism and isolated incidents of prosecution.

“The ones I know who are motivated for the right reasons, they’re not going to be intimidated out of doing that job by what they see on the news,” said David A. Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh who specializes in police conduct and accountability.

“I can believe that that sentiment is on the minds of some officers,” he said, but he doubts the majority are hesitating to do aggressive police work because of it.

“I just don’t think the evidence is there for that,” he said.

Tommy Burns, a law enforcement consultant, instructor, and former Henderson, Nevada police chief, agreed.

“It’s a professional organizationThey’re not happy about what they read, but they’re still going to do their jobs,” Burns said.

Doug Wylie, editor-in-chief of law enforcement news site PoliceOne, said he has heard anecdotally from the officers and experts he works with that police in some areas are being less proactive, but it is too soon to draw any conclusions.

Wylie said some officers who are “fearful of being thrown under the bus by the department” may be limiting themselves to responding to calls, interviewing witnesses, and doing paperwork, but those concerns started long before the Michael Brown shooting.

“We really started feeling this ‘Ferguson effect’ before it had a name,” he said, when hackers and activists online targeted departments and leaked officers’ personal information on the internet.

“You just sort of create this enhanced level of tension and anti-cop fervor,” he said.

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said in a radio interview Sunday that he believes criminals are emboldened by the belief that police do not have the power to enforce laws and that police feel they are under attack in their communities.

In May, two Baltimore police officers told CNN that cops there are being less proactive because they do not want to be prosecuted like the officers charged in the Freddie Gray case.

Ross acknowledged that some may feel that way, but there is no data to support it at this point, and he suggested those officers may have spoken out because the police union had a clear political agenda at the time to get the commissioner fired.

While there is some anecdotal evidence backing up the notion of a “Ferguson effect,” experts are dubious about drawing any broad conclusions based on only about six months of data and trends that are not replicated nationwide.

“I think it’s way too soon to tell that there’s a bright line to be drawn between data points,” Wylie said.

“You’d need a lot more data over a longer period of time,” Harris said, suggesting that one or two years of statistics may be necessary before a clear trend can be determined.

“The claims that you’re hearing are really not motivated by compelling data. They are motivated by cherry-picking some of the data.”

In a policy briefing for the Sentencing Project challenging MacDonald’s conclusions, University of Missouri-St. Louis Professor Richard Rosenfeld called the current data on crime rates “a cherry picker’s delight.”

“If you want to tell a story of crime increases, you can,” he wrote. “If not, just pick from a different tree.”

Rosenfeld noted that homicide and violent crime rates in St. Louis were already rising in 2014 before the Michael Brown shooting, but property crimes did seem to rise significantly after August.

“Temporal consistency is not a sufficient condition to establish substantive proof,” he said.

There has been a general downward trend in crime rates nationwide over the last 20 years, but the numbers have fluctuated before for brief periods of time and it is not always entirely clear why.

“These things are not unusual,” Harris said of the spikes in violence. Crime can be affected by a lot of local factors.

“It could end up just being a blip on the radar,” Burns said, but the truth may not be clear until at least the end of the year.

Although Ross believes the increased murder rates over the first six months of 2015 are statistically significant, he does not attribute it to a reaction to police killings or protests. He pointed to two factors unrelated to Michael Brown or Freddie Gray.

One is simple demographics—people 17-27 years old are disproportionately involved in violent crime, so birth rates 20-25 years ago could be impacting crime today.

The other is the instability of local drug markets, “people who are vying for control inside drug markets and perceptions of threat among people who are trying to control parts of drug markets.”

After the riots over Freddie Gray’s death, Baltimore police said enormous quantities of drugs—nearly 300,000 doses of prescription medication—had been looted from local pharmacies. The violence over the control and sale of those drugs, as well as crimes committed by the people who used them, has been seen as a possible cause of some of the crime in the months that followed.

Experts were dismissive of the notion that criminals have felt particularly “empowered” in various cities by a perception that police are being less aggressive, as MacDonald and Bratton have suggested.

“Unless we’ve come up with a way to poll the criminal element and get a good measure of their sentiment, I’m skeptical,” Harris said.

“Crime is a local phenomenon. Crime is opportunisticNobody’s really thinking much about what’s on the mind of police officers,” Harris said. “Their thinking is the same as it would have been before.”

Ross agreed that most people committing crimes do not have that kind of awareness of what police might be thinking.

Burns put it more bluntly: “Criminals are going to commit crimes because they’re criminals.”

In the chaos of riots and protests, they may be more likely to commit crimes because they will be tougher to catch, but Burns does not see that as an ongoing consideration for criminals.

“They’re always going to commit crimes, they’re always going to shootI don’t think they’re emboldened that they think they have police on the run,” he said.

Nobody disputes that crime and murder are serious concerns or that dangerous levels of tension and distrust exist between police and communities, but some say those tensions go back decades and are rooted in legitimate grievances.

“There was always a gap in trust in any American communityThe only question was how deep of a gap there was,” Harris said.

“That mistrust is not just born of a set of isolated incidents. It’s a concrete history that people and their near-ancestors experienced” since the civil rights era, not just recent events.

As such, solving the problem is a long-term project.

“You’ve got to see through actions over and over that you’re all on the same sideThat’s doable. It’s not easy, it’s not quick, but it’s doable,” Harris said.

He pointed to Cincinnati as an example of a city that devolved into riots and looting after police killed an unarmed man in 2001, but a concerted effort by police to improve relations with the community produced an environment where recent high-profile police shootings there did not result in unrest or violence.

Burns said the distrust is not always because of what police do or do not do, but because people fear retaliation from criminals if they cooperate with police.

He also pointed to community engagement and functions like town halls and neighborhood watches as ways to help establish trust with citizens in low-income neighborhoods.

“That has to heal over time, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen,” he said. “I think that’s just the nature of the society we live in.”

“It’s the responsibility of law enforcement to be as proactively present in the community engaging people in non-law enforcement environments,” Wylie said.

He said police need to go to schools and churches and connect with the community, and particularly children, when they are not just there to arrest someone.

He also suggested police invite the local media to participate in their force training exercises so reporters have a better context for what officers go through in high-stress incidents.

Wylie said it is important for police making arrests in a home to communicate to the suspect’s child or spouse, engage with them, and explain what is happening.

He said he has known officers whose parents were arrested when they were children who went into law enforcement because of how the responding officers handled the situation.

Dr. Ben Carson, one of the 17 Republicans vying for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination, told Sinclair Monday that education and engagement between police and communities could help improve relationships.

“I want the first encounter of a 3, 4, 5, 6-year-old to be with a friendly policeman, with somebody who’s bouncing the ball with him, and he begins to see this as somebody who’s his friend,” Carson said. “And by the same token, I want the police to get to know the people in the community.”

A summit of police chiefs in Washington, D.C. Monday sought solutions to rising crime levels, and several recommendations were announced after the meeting.

In a press release, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier outlined “ways to interrupt this violent trend, and ensure that our cities continue to thrive.”

The chiefs called for stronger gun laws and enhanced penalties for use of high-capacity magazines. They also recommended community partnerships to address violence, synthetic drug use, and gang affiliations, and to increase cooperation from witnesses who fear retaliation.

They said prosecution and sentencing reforms are necessary both to prevent recidivism of low-level offenders and to ensure that repeat violent offenders remain behind bars.

The chiefs also recommended developing better field tests and drug screening for synthetic drugs that have been linked to erratic and dangerous behavior.

The National Night Out, an annual event sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch, is scheduled for Tuesday night. Events are planned in thousands of communities across the country, including all seven police districts of Washington, D.C.

The events are intended to raise crime and drug awareness, promote community participation in anti-crime programs, and build relationships between police and communities.

Over 38 million people participated in events in 2014. See the National Night Out website for more information and a map of participating communities.

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