“We have done almost all we can do,” said Van Johnson, the mayor of Savannah, Ga.
The tools for fighting back are “limited” without state and federal help, said Austin Mayor Steve Adler (D).
“It’s going to get worse,” Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson (D) said.
As the homicide rate climbed through a year of pandemic-imposed shutdowns and civil unrest, officials held firm to their belief that the rise was driven by that exceptional set of circumstances. As life returned to normal, the theory went, the killings would slow.
But even as coronavirus restrictions have been lifted and protests have quieted in recent months, the violence has not subsided. Indeed, it has continued to grow. And now, local leaders are grappling with a possibility they had long feared: that a decades-long era of declining murder rates in America’s cities may be over, and that the increased killings may be here to stay.
“There’s nothing,” said Jackson, “that’s going to bring this down in the near future.”
Officials and criminal justice experts offer abundant reasons: A nation awash in guns, now more than ever. Deep mistrust between police departments and the communities they serve, particularly in high-poverty areas. The still-painful stresses caused or exacerbated by the pandemic. A cycle of violence that, once set in motion, is hard to break.
“The thing about violence is that it builds on itself. It cascades,” Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey said. “Each shooting brings the possibility of a reprisal.”
While the causes may be known — or at least theorized — the solutions are more contested. Even now, there is widespread disagreement over why the homicide rate fell for so long. How to bring it back down has become a subject of vigorous debate, with the issue taking center stage in Tuesday’s New York mayoral primary and offering yet another flash point in the country’s partisan divide.
Democrats almost universally say tighter gun laws are needed to curb violent crime, along with investments in education and jobs programs to reduce historic inequities.
“Guns and poverty are the two outliers that we have compared to other countries,” said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer (D), whose city saw a near-doubling of homicide rates last year. “There are just guns everywhere.”
But new gun restrictions are a nonstarter in Washington, where Republicans have blocked repeated efforts, and in many GOP-controlled state legislatures the laws have been loosened this year.
Republicans — along with many police unions and some chiefs — say the real cause of the spike in killings has been an overzealous criminal justice reform movement that has devastated morale in departments and allowed too many criminals to go free.
“Nowhere do you see recognition that there are some people who cause incredible harm to the community and who unfortunately need to be in jail,” said Bill Bratton, a former police commissioner in New York, Los Angeles and Boston.
The argument that reforms are to blame for the increase in homicides doesn’t hold water, said the Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, a pastor and activist in Boston, which saw homicides rise last year but decline so far in 2021.
“People don’t wake up and go, ‘You know what? I’m going to shoot you because of police reform,’ ” said White-Hammond, who is also the city’s top environmental official but spoke only in her capacity as a pastor and an activist. “If you know young people who are engaged in this world, they’re not emboldened because of police reform.”
Putting reforms in place could lead to “a period of transition that’s tough” as officials figure out how to change things, she said. But the solution, White-Hammond said, “is to lean in and do the work to figure out how we’re going to shift, rather than being halfhearted and coming up with excuses to leave in place a system that doesn’t work, that takes people’s lives unnecessarily.”
“Is that what you’re saying?” she said of people linking reforms to the rise in killings. “We should just leave in place a broken system, because fixing it will be messy in the short term?”
Bratton, who helped pioneer the “broken windows” theory of policing in which even petty violations are punished to prevent more serious crime, had long posited that widespread urban violence could be kept at bay almost indefinitely.
By his own admission, the past year has proven him wrong.
New York City police reported 462 homicides last year, up from 319 the previous year. Police in Phoenix said there were 200 homicides last year, up from 139 in 2019. In Philadelphia, there were 499 homicides last year, up from 356 a year earlier, according to police.
The violence has extended into the summer. In Philadelphia, homicides and shootings are both already ahead of last year. As of June 13, there were 238 homicides, up from 179 at the same point last year, along with more than 1,600 shootings, up from more than 1,300, according to police.
In New York, there were 181 slayings as of June 6, up from 162 on that date last year, police reported. And there were 687 shootings by that date, up from 409 a year earlier. Police in Los Angeles reported 148 homicides by last week, up from 121 over the same period in 2020.
The rise in homicides has not been accompanied by an increase in other crimes, said Jeff Asher, a crime analyst and consultant. Quite the contrary: Other crime actually fell nationwide last year, said Asher, who was previously a crime analyst for the New Orleans police.
There are far more property crimes than violent crimes each year, and homicides account for a small fraction of all violent crimes. So the surge in homicides had “virtually no impact on the nation's crime rate,” Asher said.
“The story is very much the specific increase in murder,” he said, and “the vast majority of murders are coming from guns these days.”
While some commentators have sought to link the increase in killings to the demonstrations that followed George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing push to cut police funding, Asher said there was no relationship between places with the heaviest protests and the largest increase in homicides.
Homicides and shootings were already up in several cities, including New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, among others, before Floyd’s death. Asher also found no connection between the increases in homicides and police funding, with little difference in the rise in bloodshed regardless of whether a city’s police budget rose or fell.
The increase is also not localized in big cities, but is extending to “cities of every size,” Asher said, including smaller communities.
“Given how widespread it was, it suggests that there was a big national thing that drove it, or more likely, big national things that drove it,” Asher said.
Experts and law enforcement officials alike point first to the flood of guns on American streets.
Gun sales swelled last year, particularly in the spring as the pandemic took hold and then in the summer after nationwide protests over racial injustice and policing, a Washington Post analysis previously found. That increase in people buying guns continued into the start of this year.
The sheer ubiquity of guns, said Bryanna Fox, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and a former FBI special agent, “facilitates impulsive decision-making.”
“Somebody who would've been able to calm down, walk away and make a better choice 30 minutes later now has access to a gun and can use it in a very destructive way,” she said.
In some cases, there have been some positive glimmers even amid the anguish. In Chicago, homicides were up by the end of May over the same period last year. But the pace had slowed, with slayings in both April and May down from the same months last year, police reported.
In Madison, Wis., homicides are down so far this year but shootings have increased, according to Police Chief Shon F. Barnes.
“Easy access to firearms in this country is a major issue, especially in the Midwest,” Barnes said.
Barnes said the people committing acts of violence in his community are notably younger than in the past, and he said for these people, shootings are seen as a way to gain “instant credibility” among their peers.
Police leaders are discussing the surge in bloodshed with each other, comparing notes as they try to confront the issue, said Neil Noakes, the police chief in Fort Worth. But they haven’t found any easy answers.
In 2020, Fort Worth had more than 100 homicides in a single year for the first time in a quarter-century, Noakes said. This year, he said, the city is already ahead of last year's pace.
“It really comes down to people who just unfortunately have their hands on guns that shouldn't,” he said.
To confront the ongoing bloodshed, Noakes said, officials need to take a different approach than they might have in the past and collaborate more with communities that are struggling.
“We’re not going to arrest our way out of the problem,” he said.
That’s particularly true at a time when the legal system in many parts of the country remains inundated by prosecutions after the extended shutdown of the courts because of the pandemic.
Nancy O’Malley, district attorney in the California county that includes Oakland, said she has a 12,000-case backlog, with no realistic prospect of clearing it.
“We’re just dismissing because we know we won’t see a courtroom,” she said.
Those dismissals come after a year in which lawmakers prioritized keeping people out of jails so that overcrowded conditions did not exacerbate the spread of the virus. With bail rules relaxed under emergency orders, people arrested on weapons and other charges were free to roam.
“There was basically no consequence,” O’Malley said. “We saw some people who were released for low-level crimes come back and commit higher-level crimes.”
Those included murder: Oakland had 102 homicides last year, up from 75 the year before. The pace of killings this year is even faster.
“There haven’t been many cars on the roads or people on the streets, so it’s been open warfare for those who have guns who want to shoot at each other,” she said.
Many of the crimes have involved informal gangs, and they have been concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods. But the homicides have also extended to unlikely places: rural parts of the county where killings had, not long ago, been a rarity, she said.
O’Malley said she sees signs that murder rates are beginning to level off as California opens up.
In Miami, as well, Mayor Francis Suarez said he is cautiously optimistic. The city had recorded 22 murders as of the middle of June, a pace that would put Miami’s 2021 total below the 67 homicides recorded last year.
“The economy bouncing back from the pandemic has been helpful. The activity has been helpful,” said Suarez (R).
Also making a difference, he said: Last year, the police dedicated a cumulative 200,000 hours to the city’s coronavirus response, a total he thinks will be substantially lower this year.
In other cities, homicide rates have continued to rise and mayors have been crying out for help — especially from Washington.
After four cities experienced mass shootings within six hours of each other on the night of June 11, 27 mayors wrote to President Biden to demand that he press Congress for action on gun legislation, including background checks.
Half a dozen mayors — including the leaders in Savannah, Austin and Chicago — told reporters at a news conference that the need for action was urgent.
“Wake up,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“We cannot stop gun violence without common-sense changes to our gun laws.”
But the mayors, all Democrats, also acknowledged that action was likely to be blocked by Republicans in Congress, who say that new restrictions infringe on Second Amendment rights.
Even without congressional action, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) said the Biden administration can use the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to step up its oversight of gun dealers.
The Justice Department on Tuesday announced plans to roll out five “strike forces” targeting gun trafficking. DOJ said as part of the plan, federal and local officials would target what it called “significant firearms trafficking corridors” funneling guns into five regions: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and the Bay Area.
Bratton, too, said there are steps that Washington can take, including establishing a national commission on crime to develop guidelines for best practices in policing.
“We’re not going to solve this on a city-by-city basis,” the former commissioner said.
Sharkey, the sociologist, said neighborhood by neighborhood might be more like it. Police, he said, have had to step back after community outrage over brutal and racist tactics, with violent crime creeping into the void.
Police leaders say officers might be pulling back in some cases, fearing potential backlash or controversy, but other experts said they were skeptical that “de-policing” was leading to the rise in killings.
Still, the environment could change if community leaders and groups start to fill that space with mentorship and job programs, redesigns of empty lots and after-school activities for youngsters, Sharkey said. All are initiatives, he said, that have been proven to work in reducing crime.
“Police dominating by any means necessary is not sustainable,” Sharkey said. “We need a new model.”