Since the start of the protests ignited by the police killing of George Floyd in May, cities across the country have seen an alarming spike in violent crime. In New York, 64 people were shot over the Fourth of July weekend. Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood had three drive-by shootings in a single day. In total, the recent shootings in New York City represent a 210% increase over the same time period in 2019.
Other cities are showing similar trends. In Dallas, violent crime has increased more than 14% since April. Philadelphia has already logged 210 homicides in 2020, the highest death toll since 2007.
Police and politicians have blamed protesters for the rise in violence.
“There is a feeling on the street that the police are handcuffed, that they are not out there as aggressively as we were in the past,” New York Police Department Chief Terence Monahan said on a local radio show this week. “All the rhetoric of ‘Defund the police,’ get rid of the police, abolish the police, that’s got to end. That has to stop”
President Donald Trump claimed this week that Chicago, where shootings have also increased, was “worse than any war zone” and that a “vicious assault” on police officers was to blame for the rise in crime.
But while the increase in crime is real, there is no evidence to suggest that the protests are to blame.
America is in the midst of three unprecedented events — a pandemic, a nationwide uprising over racial injustice and a collapsing economy — that affect crime in overlapping ways. Many of the cities with increases in violence in July had seen significant decreases over the previous three months. The current spike may simply mean that whatever grudges Americans held against each other, they managed to wait until now to carry them out.
Nor is the link between police activity and violent crime as straightforward as politicians make it out to be.
“People imagine that there’s a bunch of criminals out there and that without police, all those criminals would immediately start doing violence,” said Monica Bell, a Yale professor who studies segregation and policing. “But that doesn’t line up with what decades of social science teaches us about why people commit crime.”
This Has Happened Before
This is not the first time violent crime has spiked following protests against police brutality. After the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and the ensuing unrest, numerous cities recorded an uptick in violence and a decline in arrests.
Police named the phenomenon “The Ferguson Effect” and argued that protests against police violence had made law enforcement officers afraid to do their jobs. In response to the more cautious police forces, criminals had become more brazen in carrying out assaults and murders.
“We have allowed our police department to get fetal and it is having a direct consequence [on crime],” then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in 2015. “They don’t want to be a news story themselves, they don’t want their career ended early, and it’s having an impact.”
“Policing as it’s currently designed is doomed to failure. Most of the work is just shuffling people and problems around in a way that everyone within the system understands is completely broken.”
The difference now is that researchers know much more about this “effect” than they did five years ago. Though reports of crimes did indeed spike following the Ferguson protests, arrest rates had been declining for years. There was no evidence that the demonstrations had affected police behavior, nor that the smaller number of arrests had encouraged crime.
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who co-wrote the definitive study on the effect, said that what really happened after the 2014 Ferguson protests was the opposite of what law enforcement officials and pundits hypothesized.
“Police weren’t pulling back from communities, communities were pulling back from police,” Rosenfeld said. In other words, no one wanted to call the police if they could help it, even if they were having a problem with another person.
Rosenfeld’s finding aligns with years of research showing that minority communities are becoming less likely to trust police departments. A 2017 study found that 75% of Blacks and Hispanics thought police treated them worse than whites. Another found that just 28% of minorities trusted police to respond to their concerns. Every time police commit a high-profile incident of violence, this distrust spikes even higher.
“The rise in crime in 2015 was about the deteriorating relationship between police and communities of color,” Rosenfeld said. “When trust in police falls, more people decide they don’t want to have anything to do with the police. That means that when disputes arise, they’re more likely to take matters into their own hands.”
Policing Has Become More Aggressive
The reasons why communities of color do not trust the police should be no mystery to anyone who has turned on a TV or read a newspaper in the past two months. Since the 1980s, the war on drugs, mass incarceration and increasing militarization have transformed urban police forces into occupying armies.
In a 2019 poll, Black Americans were three times more likely to report being afraid of police violence than were white Americans. And for good reason: In 2006, at the height of New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, 4 out of 5 Black adolescents said they had been stopped by the NYPD in the previous year — compared to just 1 in 10 whites.
And though reducing crime has been the ostensible goal of these harsh police tactics, it has not resulted in greater responsiveness when communities of color are victims of violence. Bell spent several years interviewing residents of low-income minority neighborhoods who told her that police were all around them in their daily lives but disappeared when they actually needed assistance.
“Black people in marginalized communities want accountability for violence,” Bell said. But when they were assaulted or had a loved one murdered, they struggled to get the police to pay attention.
“It’s not just that police don’t find the person who did it,” she said. “It might also be that everyone knows who did it but the police don’t seem to care. It starts to feel like Black lives are disposable.”
The combination of police surveillance and indifference in minority neighborhoods has a measurable toll. The stress of poverty and discrimination can have a “weathering” effect on the nervous system that contributes to cardiovascular and heart disease. Low-level criminal convictions cut off access to employment, public housing and welfare.
Policing also has less measurable effects. One of Bell’s neighbors once called the police on her when she was trying to get into her own apartment in New Haven, Connecticut. The police arrived in minutes and asked her a series of condescending questions about what she was doing and whether she knew anyone in the building. They finally left when she demonstrated that her key worked in the door.
“That happened 12 years ago, but it still shapes the way I move about the world and where I choose to live,” she said. “I don’t live near many of my colleagues because that’s not somewhere I feel comfortable. We understate the degree to which the avoidance of racism affects people’s life decisions — and the role of the police in enforcing that.”
“We worry about losing social order if we defund police departments because we think that’s what police provide. But they don’t. Social order comes from a much broader range of community resources like health, education and family support.”
Police Are Making Their Own Jobs Harder
Over the last three decades, violent crime in America has undergone two seismic shifts.
First, it has concentrated. Since 1991, violent crime has fallen by 51%. But it has not fallen everywhere: Roughly half of America’s murders now take place in cities that host just 25% of its population. And within those cities, homicides are more concentrated still — roughly one-quarter of killings take place in poor, inner-city neighborhoods that house just 1.5% of the country’s population.
Second, violent crime is now more likely to go unsolved. In 1961, police cleared 93% of homicides. By 2013, that figure had fallen to 63%. In some cities, police solve fewer than 1 in 5 homicides.
Both of these trends are intimately linked with the transformation of American law enforcement. Neighborhoods with high crime rates often have the most aggressive policing. From anti-gang units to stop-and-frisk policies to SWAT raids, police often target the populations most likely to be victims of crime as its assumed perpetrators.
This also explains why homicides are getting harder to solve. Despite myths peddled on shows like “CSI” and “Law & Order,” few homicide cases are solved through forensic evidence. Wendy Regoeczi, a criminologist at Cleveland State University, said that the best predictor of whether a killing gets solved is still whether witnesses come forward.
“The lion’s share of murders in America are between young men who get into a dispute over what from the outside looks like a relatively minor issue,” Regoeczi said. Most of these homicides should be relatively easy to solve. But in the neighborhoods where violent crime has concentrated, witnesses don’t want to come forward.
“I’ve read a lot of homicide files that took place in a bar and tons of people were around, but nobody saw anything,” Regoeczi said. “Police can say ’til they’re blue in the face, ‘We can protect you,’ but if people don’t have faith in those statements, they’re not going to say anything — and for good reason.”
This same lack of trust also affects which crimes get reported. In 2004, Milwaukee police viciously beat a Black man named Frank Jude on suspicion that he had stolen an officer’s badge. The following year, after the case gained national attention, researchers found that 911 calls in Milwaukee dropped more than 17%. And though the decline was minor and temporary in white neighborhoods, it lasted more than a year in Black neighborhoods.
Policing Isn’t The Only Thing That Affects Crime Rates
Since 2014, Michael Sierra-Arévalo, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, has spent more than 1,000 hours tagging along with patrol officers in three cities. In all that time, he said, he witnessed only a handful of calls that had anything to do with serious violence or high-level felonies.
“I went to far more petty disputes between neighbors and lovers than to calls where someone was seriously hurt,” Sierra-Arévalo said.
The vast majority of police work that he saw was what he described as “heart-wrenching bureaucracy” ― problems that resulted from a lack of services to deal with substance abuse, homelessness, poverty and mental illness.
Without the power to address the root causes of these problems, police tackled them with the only tool they had: handcuffs.
“Policing as it’s currently designed is doomed to failure,” Sierra-Arévalo said. “Most of the work is just shuffling people and problems around in a way that everyone within the system understands is completely broken.”
This is why factors like officer morale and arrest rates have relatively little effect on crime rates. The day-to-day activities of policing have little to do with solving or preventing crime.
“We worry about losing social order if we defund police departments because we think that’s what police provide,” Bell said. “But they don’t. Social order comes from a much broader range of community resources, like health, education and family support.”
This doesn’t mean that police have no effect on crime rates whatsoever. “Hotspot” policing — putting officers in the places where crimes are concentrated — reliably produces modest reductions in crime rates. Police in some cities have reduced homicides through “focused deterrence,” an approach that identifies the individuals most likely to be the perpetrators or victims of gun crime and offering services to break the cycle of violence.
But the effectiveness of these approaches doesn’t mean that other methods, with less participation by police, wouldn’t be more effective.
“Policing is just one way to reduce violent crime,” Sierra-Arévalo said. “And we know that it also creates tremendous negative impacts. It’s the most blunt instrument for reducing crime, and it’s the one we keep relying on.”