A Violent Crisis

A Violent Crisis

A gunman opened fired in a Brooklyn subway, wounding 10 people on Tuesday and injuring others. A mall shooting in South Carolina yesterday wounded 10. A gang shootout this month in Sacramento killed six and wounded 12 more. New Orleans reported its bloodiest weekend in 10 years. Road rage shootings appear to be up in some states.

These are examples of America’s recent violent turn. Murders have spiked nearly 40 percent since 2019, and violent crimes, including shootings and other assaults, have increased overall. More tragedies, from mass shootings to smaller acts of violence, are likely to make headlines as long as higher levels of violent crime persist.

Three explanations help explain the increase in violence. The Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns disrupted all aspects of life, including the 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 bought a record number of guns in recent years.

Another explanation, covered in this newsletter before, ties these issues together: a growing sense of social discord and distrust. 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.

Besides Covid and police brutality, the country’s increasingly polarized politics and poor economic conditions have also fueled this discord. That helps explain the murder spike, as well as recent increases in drug addiction and overdoses, mental health problems, car crashes and even confrontations over masks on airplanes.

But given the shootings of the past two weeks, I want to step back and focus on violent crime trends in particular, with the help of charts by my colleague Ashley Wu.

Experts pointed to several reasons for concern: not only the headline-making tragedies, but also continued murder rate increases in some cities and the persistence of problems that contributed to more violent crime in the first place. But experts also see some potentially hopeful signs: recent decreases in murder rates in other cities, the easing of Covid-related disruptions and growing distance from the more chaotic police-community relations of 2020.

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

The major causes of the 2020-21 murder spike still linger to varying degrees. The guns that Americans bought remain in circulation. While Covid cases have plummeted and lockdowns have ended, new variants are still disrupting social services and life in general.

Community-police relations are also still fraught, especially in minority neighborhoods. “If there is a fundamental breakdown in the community, the police are simply not going to 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 federal pandemic-era relief programs, like the child tax credit, is already increasing poverty rates.

Inflation is particularly concerning because it could drive people to engage in property crime if they cannot keep up with higher expenses, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. And “some of those robberies end up as homicides,” he told me.

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

The data show some bright spots. The rise in homicides reported for 2022 is lower than the 2020-21 increase. In several big cities, murders are actually down.

“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 might be easing.”

Murder rates are still 30 percent lower than they were during the previous peaks between the 1970s and ’90s. “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 fall, so will the pandemic’s effects on crime and violence. More distance from the police violence and protests of 2020 could also ease police-community tensions. (This seemed to happen before: Murders spiked in 2015 and 2016 after protests over police brutality, then murder rates leveled off, before spiking again in 2020.) And the social discord wrought by those problems could start to fade.

Federal funding is also flowing to cities and states to combat crime. The specifics and execution matter, but studies broadly suggest that more support for policing and other social services, which many places are now adopting, could help.

War in Ukraine

Other Big Stories

The Week Ahead

  • Ukrainian officials are expected to attend meetings in Washington this week to discuss the effects of Russia’s invasion on the global economy.

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

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

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

  • Today is Easter. Celebrate with these stress-free holiday dinner recipes.

The Sunday question: Should elected officials be age-limited?

Doubts about the mental fitness of Senator Dianne Feinstein, 88, argue for mandatory retirement ages, The New York Post’s Maureen Callahan says. David Graham makes the counterargument, noting in The Atlantic that some lawmakers stay sharp longer than others.

By the Book: The novelist Ocean Vuong will read a book or poem just about anywhere — including at a mixed martial arts fight.

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