Earlier this year the Brennan Center for Justice released a report analyzing violent crime data in America’s 30 largest cities for the calendar year of 2015. 

While the report noted modest increases in violent crime in Baltimore, Chicago and Washington D.C., it concluded that, on the whole, reports of a national crime wave were premature and unfounded, and that “the average person in a large urban area is safer walking on the street today than he or she would have been at almost any time in the past 30 years.

Now, just a few short months later, the folks at the Brennan Center have updated their study with crime statistics through September 2016 and they’re wishing they could have a “do over” on that previous conclusion after finding that the national murder rate is now projected to increase 31.5% from 2014 to 2016.  Oops.

Moreover, while spikes in violent crime were limited to just a few large cities in 2015, so far in 2016 11 out of 22 of the largest cities in the country, for which the Brennan center was able to collect data, reported a YoY increase of over 20% in murder rates.  To be fair, cities like San Jose reported a large percentage increase off a very low base but a 71% increase is still significant.

Finally, while we often write about murder rates in Chicago, due to the shear number of deadly crimes, when reviewed on a per capita basis the crime rate even in Chicago pales in comparison to Detroit and Baltimore.

FBI Crime Data

Moreover, the spike in violent crime over the past two years has seemingly reversed an over 2-decade long trend in declining murder rates per capita for the U.S., overall.

FBI Crime Data

Can anyone spot the outlier in the following chart accounting for the majority in incremental murders in 2016?

FBI Crime Data

Of course the real question is why the sudden spike in violent crime is occurring now.  The study attempts to explain the sudden spike with all of the usual excuses including sustained poverty, unemployment, declining police forces etc.  That said, the chart below seemingly debunks many of those theories as several cities have experienced a substantial increase in murders without a corresponding increase in the overall crime rate.

FBI Crime Data

The “why now” question is something we recently addressed in another post entitled “Milwaukee Homicides Soar – What Is Going On In the Murderous Midwest?“.  While the typical explanations for violent crime (e.g. poverty, unemployment, etc.) may explain why crime is higher in certain cities it certainly doesn’t explain why the sudden spike is occurring now. Thomas Abt of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government thinks the sudden spike is more likely due to the “Ferguson Effect” or a concept he refers to as “legal cynicism.” 

The key question is why the spike in violence now?  Ask any “expert” to explain the cause of violent crime and you’ll get a range of responses from systemic problems of poverty, unemployment, lack of education of inner city youth, breakdown of the family unit, etc.  The problem is that none of those things explain the sudden changes in violence we’re currently witnessing in the Midwest

Thomas Abt, senior research fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, believes the issue is more likely what other political commentators have dubbed “the Ferguson Effect.”  Writing for The Marshall Project, Abt discussed what he thought might be causing the sudden spike in violent crimes in the Midwest:

It is unclear what is driving the problem, but my own hunch – and it is still just a hunch at this point – involves a criminological phenomenon called legal cynicism. Multiple studies have demonstrated that, controlling for other factors, when communities view the police and criminal justice system as illegitimate, they become more violentWhen people believe the system is unwilling or unable to help them, they are more likely to take the law into their own hands, creating the cycles of violent retribution that were chronicled so vividly last year in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside.

Certainly, one has to look no further than the recent mainstream media coverage of the protests in Charlotte to find examples of the police being delegitimized.


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