Murder rates are up in cities across the U.S., but listening to Republican politicians and conservative commentators, one might think that killings have increased only in cities where police departments were subject to cuts.
According to the Associated Press, murders have also increased in cities where police spending rose.
On social media and in political speeches, some Republicans and pro-police groups say last year’s calls to slash spending on law enforcement have led to a dramatic rise in killings in cities overseen by Democrats.
The increases they cite are real, and several big cities did make cuts to police spending. But the reductions were mostly modest, and the same big increases in homicides are being seen nationwide — even in cities that increased police spending. At the same time, the rates for burglaries, drug offenses and many other types of crime are down in many cities across the country.
The effort to blame Democrats for crime may offer a preview of Republicans’ strategy for upcoming elections: a new twist on an old “law and order” argument from the party’s past, harkening back to President Richard Nixon.
Just as it did half a century ago, the argument ignores the complicated reasons for fluctuations in crime rates — a list that today includes the upheaval wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd by police.
“2020 was just a crazy complicated year where lots of things happened, and there are lots of potential explanations for why we saw these big changes,” said David Abrams, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor, who tracks crime rates and is studying the impact of the pandemic. The bottom line? “It’s complicated.”
Along with cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon — which trimmed their police budgets by 5 percent, 3 percent and less than 4 percent, respectively — Houston saw an increase in homicides despite increasing its police budget.
Additionally, Nashville, Tennessee, has seen a 50 percent spike in killings so far this year even as the city increased spending on police.
Meanwhile, other types of crime are down, according to preliminary statistics and researchers who say crime initially dropped around the world after the pandemic began. While cities are reporting jumps in their homicide rate, there’s been no similar increase in other crimes, like burglaries, robberies or drug offenses.
That’s not what you’d expect if calls to defund the police were leading to a rash of crime, Abrams said.
Abrams told the AP that this is not what one would expect to see if calls for defunding the police were leading to a rise in crime: “Any theory explaining the rise in homicides would also have to explain why we haven’t seen a spike in other kinds of crimes.”
What is the explanation for the increase in killings in cities across the U.S.?
Economic losses and personal stress brought on by the pandemic are one suggestion. COVID-19 also disrupted in-person education and many community programs designed to quell violence. It put a strain on police departments, hospitals, courts and other institutions tasked with dealing with the impact of crime.
Other possibilities include rising gun ownership and the protests over police killings that could have emboldened criminals. Then there are the host of factors that contribute to localized violence, including gangs, drugs and poverty.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist and professor at Boston’s Northeastern University, said small changes to a police budget, or the party affiliation of a particular mayor, aren’t likely to play a big role. Some violence fluctuations are part of long-standing problems.
“It’s not related to which party is ruling,” Fox said. “But you can win a lot of votes by pushing fear.”
Image credit: Screengrab / KPRC 2 Click2Houston / YouTube