Why violent crime surged after police across America retreated

Last year, the United States tallied more than 20,000 murders — the highest total since 1995 and 4,000 more than in 2019. Preliminary FBI data for 2020 points to a 25% surge in murders — the largest single year increase since the agency began publishing uniform data in 1960.

Policing is to blame, or rather the lack of it.

In the wake of the May and June unrest, public officials’ decisions and growing hostility toward policing left law enforcement demoralized, debilitated and, in some cases, defunded. Even the most dedicated officers who now face a greater risk of being sued, fired or prosecuted for doing their job feel pressure to pull back.

The message from a new wave of progressive prosecutors is clear: making arrests for drug and weapons crimes that will go unprosecuted exposes officers to the risk of disciplinary action, lawsuits and criminal prosecution. To mitigate that risk, police take a more passive approach.

Data shows a precipitous decline in law enforcement activity from last June through this February. We found that across the 10 major cities we studied, deadly violence rose as engaged policing fell. Cities that cut (or threaten to) police budgets often saw the largest drops in active policing and the increases in homicide.

Police badge (Photo: Getty Images)

After the George Floyd protests started in New York City, the New York Police Department logged 45,000 fewer arrests from June to December  — a 38% decline while the Big Apple added more than 100 additional homicides (a 58% increase).

From June through the end of this February, Chicago’s police made 31,000 fewer arrests — a 53% decline as murders rose 65%. In Louisville, where massive unrest included the shooting of two police officers during a protest, homicides jumped 87% as the police made 35% fewer vehicle stops since June while arrests plummeted 42% during summer months compared with 2019.

From Los Angeles and Houston to New Orleans and Minneapolis, the political response to the unrest lead to de-policing and the resulting record violence.

Already bloody St. Louis hit a 50-year homicide high, a rate of 87 per 100,000 residents — a rate three times higher than Mexico and Central America. As Milwaukee announced slashing 120 officers from its police force, the city saw a 98% increase in killings.

Preventive policing reduces crime

Legitimate, constitutional preventive policing reduces crime, and when police face official barriers to otherwise lawful enforcement, crime rises.

In 2015, when an ACLU lawsuit reduced Chicago police’s ability to make stops and searches, Windy City killings jumped 58% as street stops fell 82% in 2016, according to University of Utah research.

Similarly, Baltimore prosecutor Marilyn Mosby’s 2015 weak case against the cops in the Freddie Gray incident (all charges were later dropped or ended in acquittal), and her hostility toward the cases police sent to her office, demoralized officers and deterred proactive policing.

Over the next 12 months, arrests fell 28% as shootings jumped and murder rose 55% to make Baltimore America’s murder capital that year. That violence has not abated as overall arrests continue to plummet each year as police further disengage.

Philadelphia hit a 30-year high with 500 homicide victims in 2020 and more than 100 in 2021 so far. As progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner has dropped 50% of both drug and illegal gun cases, police have reduced vehicle and pedestrian stops by 72%.

In 2020, overall arrests fell by a third, including a 20% drop for violent crimes. Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw grudgingly admitted that public officials’ attacks demoralized police, encouraging de-policing.

Over the summer, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler “defunded” the Portland Police Bureau by $12 million and eliminated three police units. As chaos engulfed the city, shootings went up 173% and murders jumped an astounding 255%.

Witnessing the carnage, Wheeler now plans to reconstitute the disbanded “gun violence” squad and put $2 million back into its budget.

Police work, when done properly, is effective at reducing crime. But it requires more than merely responding to calls for police service and investigating crimes that have already occurred (“reactive policing”).

Effective, crime-preventing policing entails a willingness by officers to actively confront law breakers, especially for drugs and gangs, which are the main drivers of urban violence. It also requires public support, full but fair accountability and leaders who will defend the role of law enforcement.

Wave of retirements in the ranks

Today’s increasingly hostile work environment for law enforcement has made them more risk averse, reactive and discouraged. Now, veteran officers are running for the exits, putting in their retirement papers at a record clip.

Those who remain on the force are disempowered, so they disengage from the hardest, and riskiest, but most necessary types of police work.

These past few bloody months should teach us that when the Thin Blue Line retreats, violence charges in.

Jason Johnson is the former deputy police commissioner for Baltimore (2016-18) and the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.

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