The New York Times reports that homicides in major population centers were up an average of more than 30 percent last year and another 24 percent this year. This trend has dogged the nation throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Chicago saw its worst year for killings in more than two decades; homicides in D.C. hit a 16-year high in 2020. The reasons remain unclear. Possible factors include the economic and social upheaval unleashed by covid-19, the proliferation of guns and covid outbreaks that forced police to scale back street deployments. Last summer’s protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis may have made civilians warier of calling on law enforcement, or law enforcement warier of involving themselves.
These last observations invite the obvious question: What now? Involvement from law enforcement absolutely can have an impact on reducing violent crime. But it isn’t the only intervention that can do so. Past spikes in crime have been met for the most part with more police and more punishing policing, despite a body of research on non-policing interventions that can have significant effects on crime. That has resulted in more division and more inequality, which in turn have led to more crime, as well as a host of other costs too long overlooked: from fostering officer brutality to alienating Black Americans from their government and disengaging them from democracy. The nation cannot afford to make the same mistake this time — not as Americans are finally beginning to build a broader understanding of public safety that could breed better responses to the crimes that do occur and prevent some of those crimes from occurring at all.
Already, there’s progress underway. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan contains a little-covered provision investing $5 billion in community violence interventions. The administration has directed existing funds to similar efforts and pushed states to use grants and coronavirus relief aid to do the same. These strategies seek to interrupt cycles of violence by engaging with those most at risk and mediating conflicts as they arise, including through post-shooting hospital visits to discourage retaliation. And they work, reducing homicides by as much as 60 percent in areas where they are implemented. Other innovative ideas, as potent as they are cheap, abound — such as transforming neighborhoods’ physical space by converting vacant lots to parks or refurbishing abandoned buildings. No two communities are the same, and all need the time and space to figure out what works for them.
Legislators and other elected officials everywhere should regard this crisis as another reason this experimentation is so crucial, not as an opportunity to stop the work from happening just as it begins.