The Wall Street Journal has released their analysis of homicide data, complied since 1985, for the 35 largest cities in the nation. In the past two years, there are four cities – Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee and Memphis – that have approached or exceeded records set a quarter-century ago when gang wars and crack sales plagued urban areas.
Homicide rates in these cities have risen to levels not seen since the 1990s, despite the fact that on a national level, crime rates are at near historic lows.
Of the country’s 35 largest cities, 27 of them saw homicide rates rise per capita since 2014, but even these rates are relatively low compared to rates in the 1990s. Still, the country’s two biggest cities, New York and Los Angeles, are seeing long-term drops in their murder rate.
But in Chicago, another of the biggest cities, there are 27.8 homicides for every 100,000 residents. As of Friday, shootings were at 330, compared to 324 over the same period last year. In week’s time, three Chicago children were the victims of gun violence.
Violence in Chicago appears to be localized to five neighborhoods with just 9% of the population accounting for one-third of the city’s homicides in 2016. The murders are concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, while wealthier downtown areas are prospering. President Trump commented at a news conference last week that parts of Chicago are “worse than almost any of the places in the Middle East that we talk about,” but did not provide supporting data for that comparison.
Memphis had the distinction of reaching its highest rate last year, with 32 murders per 100,000 residents.
In Baltimore, 47 people have already been killed since the beginning of the year, putting it on track for the highest rate since at least 1970.
Police chiefs in these historic cities attribute the crime surge to a variety of factors, including gang violence, poverty, strained community relations and lax prosecution of gun laws.
Still, poverty rates are not a consistent predictor of higher crime rates. The four cities with rising crime share elevated rates of poverty and unemployment have levels similar to those in Philadelphia, where the violent crime rate is at its lowest in three decades.
The political battle over the numbers of officers doesn’t always correlate with the homicide rate. In Baltimore, for example, there are more officers per 10,000 residents than New York, and Milwaukee and Memphis are among the 10 cities that have the most officers per population.
One criminologist from the University of Missiouri-St.Louis, Richard Rosenfeld, notes that part of the issue could be “the withdrawal of some local communities [from cooperating with police] and police disengagement.” Historically, the murder surge in Baltimore, Chicago and Milwaukee followed highly publicized police killings of black men. In Baltimore in particular following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries he sustained while in custody, overall arrests plummeted 45%, while homicides rose 78%, and shootings more than doubled.
The Milwaukee police chief, Edward Flynn, suggests that these police-involved shootings have made officers wary of becoming the next viral video, and eroded relations in the most violent neighborhoods. When officers “feel like they are being treated as the enemy, it affects their motivation.”