criminal justice

Progressives Don’t Need to Downplay Rising Homicides

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

At our most peaceful, the United States is an exceptionally murderous nation.

In 2014, America recorded the lowest homicide rate in its history — and the highest homicide rate of any comparably prosperous country. That year, Americans were more than three times as likely as Western Europeans to die by murder. Like most things in the U.S., this aberrantly high risk of homicide was not distributed equally. Residents of Washington, D.C., were murdered at eight times the rate of those in Iowa. Within the District, as in virtually all major U.S. cities, killing was largely quarantined to a select group of politically disempowered, economically dispossessed neighborhoods. Poor Black people did the bulk of the dying.

America’s distribution of violent death has changed little over the past seven years. But the sum total has risen considerably. In 2019, the U.S. murder rate was about 11 percent higher than it had been in 2014. We do not yet have an official body count for 2020. But preliminary data suggests that, across major cities, homicides rose by an average of 30 percent last year — and then jumped another 24 percent through the first few months of this one. If current estimates prove accurate, 2020 witnessed the largest single-year increase in homicides in U.S. history, and 2021 is on pace to see a jump an even higher jump.

This poses a challenge for progressives. Over the past decade, the American left has come to define itself in opposition to our nation’s criminal-justice system — to the aberrant length of its prison sentences, the inhumanity of its penitentiaries, and the racism of its policing. Amid the nadir in violent crime (and high tide of post-2008 budget austerity), reform gained traction. Drugs were decriminalized, prison populations cut, progressive prosecutors elected, mandatory-minimum sentencing rolled back, and police killings in major cities marginally reduced. But in America, safety and compassion historically have been deemed competing goods. In times of relative peace, we may acknowledge the humanity of criminal offenders and the presumed innocence of suspect classes. Once the enfranchised’s sense of security is shaken, however, such niceties have often been suspended.

Thus, the present homicide surge threatens to erode the left’s fragile progress toward a justice system worthy of that name. Already, the Democratic Party is seeking greater distance from radical police reform. And since frightened electorates are often reactionary ones, the rising salience of crime imperils the entire progressive project.

All this has led some on the left to downplay the past year’s murder wave, and attempt to stigmatize media coverage of it. On Twitter, influential liberal commentators routinely deride straightforward reporting on the rise in homicides or commentary on the subject (even when that commentary is ultimately sympathetic to the reform project). Others suggest that the media is engineering public concern about crime where little would otherwise exist, if not hyping “a nonexistent crime wave.” One prominent civil-rights attorney preemptively belittled an expected increase in homicides this summer by arguing that “what constitutes a ‘crime’ is determined by people in power who have a lot of money,” among other things.

In isolation, almost all of these media criticisms are defensible. One can muster reasonable critiques of the framing of most articles about gun violence. America is not experiencing a “crime wave” (i.e., an across-the-board increase in all categories of crime) so much as a homicide surge in certain pockets of certain cities. A wide range of socially devastating activities are not coded as criminal because powerful interests benefit from them. And yet, as these plausible-if-overheated denunciations of homicide coverage proliferate on progressive social media, they send one fundamental, meta-message: The left is complacent about a large increase in the already exceptionally high rate of homicide victimization endured by the urban working class.

I think it’s both politically and morally imperative for progressives to disavow such complacency. The threat that public alarm over crime will trigger a punitive turn in policy is real. But the best way for the left to counter that threat is not to downplay concerns about rising murder rates, but rather to insist that such violence only underscores the necessity of progressive reform. That is not an easy argument to make in the U.S., but at the municipal level at least, we know that it can be a winning one.

The dismissive posture that many progressives adopt toward coverage of violent crime is motivated by inarguable insights: Americans routinely overestimate the prevalence of crime, a fact that is largely attributable to the media’s “if it bleeds, it leads” modus operandi. Despite the homicide surge of the past two years, America’s murder rate remains far lower than it was in the 1990s, and mainstream coverage does not always convey this fact. Even last year, the number of Americans killed by homicide (roughly 20,000) paled in comparison to those killed by more mundane, perennially under-covered social ills such as the tobacco industry (est. 480,000), air pollution (est. 100,000), or lack of health insurance (est. 45,000).

Graphic: BBC

Given these realities — and the political hazards of crime’s rising prominence — there might be a case for trying to bully news outlets into giving short shrift to a murder wave, were that a plausible objective. But it isn’t. No amount of Twitter dunks will persuade the mainstream media to abandon its preoccupation with violence, because none will extinguish our own fascination with the same. “Man Who Lived in Vicinity of Coal-Fired Power Plant Dies Prematurely From Respiratory Problems” will never command as much attention as “Toddler Killed by Stray Bullet.”

If the left’s attempt to stigmatize media coverage of rising crime is tactically quixotic, it is also often intellectually hypocritical.

Yes, America’s murder rate is lower today than it was in the early 1990s. But so is the percentage of Americans who lack health insurance. In 2018, progressives did not lambast the media for covering a modest increase in the uninsured rate because things were still better than they’d been in 1998. Rather, we pointed to the negligible uninsured rates of other developed countries, and declared the performance of America’s health-care system a persistent scandal. If our nation’s uninsured rate should be judged by the standard of other wealthy countries, why shouldn’t its murder rate be judged by the same metric? To put the same basic point differently: Police shootings in American cities were less prevalent in 2020 than they had been years earlier. Does any progressive believe that fact had any bearing on whether George Floyd’s murder deserved widespread media coverage?

Leftists have made many sound criticisms of news coverage of mass shootings. Yet I am not aware of any who argued in 2012 that the national media shouldn’t treat the Sandy Hook massacre as an event worthy of national attention or political response, on the grounds that America’s homicide rate was near a historic low. In the grand scheme of public-health threats, high-casualty mass shootings are marginal phenomena. But progressives by and large do not disdain coverage of them on that basis. To the contrary, in the context of such shootings, progressives typically recognize that homicide degrades our collective life in a manner that other, more prevalent causes of death don’t; in periods when mass killings come in quick succession, we often tweet lamentations of our newfound sense of physical insecurity in public space, and condemnations of the complacent policy-makers who’ve undermined our safety. (I know I am not the only person who, at various public gatherings, has experienced intrusive thoughts of where I’d hide/what escape route I’d take, should bullets start to fly.)

Yet there is no progressive argument for why (relatively) rare episodes of mass violence in places frequented by the white middle class deserve media attention and political concern — but a 30 percent increase in homicide concentrated in low-income Black communities does not. And of course, the trauma suffered by middle-class news junkies who opt into witnessing mass shootings on social media is trivial compared to the trauma suffered by poor children whose every walk to school is shadowed by the threat of lethal violence.

It is surely true that crime’s rising salience in opinion polls is driven primarily by “media-shaped perceptions” rather than firsthand experience, since criminal victimization is concentrated among a disadvantaged minority. But a recent Yahoo News/YouGov survey found that concern with crime was significantly higher among the demographic groups that suffer the highest rates of firsthand victimization. Asked whether they considered crime a “very big problem” in America today, 59 percent of Black voters said yes, while just 47 percent of white voters said the same. Similarly, while only 41 percent of voters earning over $100,000 a year called crime a “very big” problem, that figure was 50 percent among those earning less than $50,000.

The urban working class’s acute concern with crime is further illuminated by a Gallup poll taken last summer, in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd protests. In it, only 19 percent of Black respondents said that they wanted a reduced police presence in their neighborhood — this despite the fact that, in a nearly simultaneous survey, more than 80 percent of Black voters said that they lacked confidence in the police.

The American left is not going to remake public safety in U.S. cities without expanding its support among the urban working class. And publicly associating progressivism with complacency about a rise in homicides seems antithetical to that project in at least two ways. For one, it risks conveying the impression that the left lacks confidence in its own vision for public safety — generally speaking, political movements do not seek to downplay social problems that they think their program will solve.

For another, it invites the suspicion that the (largely white, middle-class) progressive movement’s interest in preserving the lives of disadvantaged Black people is highly contingent: Lose your son in a way we find ideologically flattering and narratively satisfying — at the hands of a cop, or some other archetypical embodiment of white supremacy — and you will know our solidarity. Lose him to another disadvantaged kid in a tit-for-tat gang feud, and we’ll criticize the media for treating an uptick in deaths like his as a serious issue.

I do not think that such impressions would be accurate. As I’ve already suggested, I think the left’s (far from universal) impulse to downplay rising homicide is rooted in a well-founded fear that an increase in crime’s salience will yield a punitive turn in public policy, which would only exacerbate the hardships of the urban poor. But on social media, the gap between the left’s avowed interest in the victims of police violence and its interest in the far more numerous victims of street violence is vast. Reasonable, ideologically unsettled observers could get the wrong idea, and thus grow more sympathetic to the right’s ideas.

Progressives aren’t going to get the media to ignore crime for the sake of social justice. And we aren’t going to persuade the urban working class to disregard rising homicide. Thus, our best bet for resisting a punitive turn in criminal-justice policy is to convince voters that our approach to public safety is more effective than the pro-carceral status quo.

Happily, the evidence that a progressive anti-crime agenda would outperform America’s traditional draconian one is quite strong. Contrary to the wishful speculations of some pundits, the past year’s spike in homicide is not attributable to the rise of progressive prosecutors: Murder rates have risen no faster in cities with reformist district attorneys.

Meanwhile, criminological research suggests that:

• Long prison sentences do not deter crime, and are actually counterproductive for public safety.

Investments in preschool and summer-job programs lower disadvantaged young people’s susceptibility to criminal activity.

• Community-based “violence interrupter” programs can preempt lethal violence.

Raising wages for “low-skill” workers can reduce recidivism, and thus, pro-labor policies are anti-crime policies.

• If the Medicaid expansion is any guide, then increasing access to affordable health care in general — and free drug treatment in particular — can deliver immediate reductions in both violent and property crimes.

• Laws tightening licensing requirements for handgun purchases have yielded dramatic reductions in firearm homicide rates.

There are obviously distinctions between center-left, progressive, and abolitionist public-safety agendas. Most notably, there is a genuine tension between minimizing homicide victimization and literally, immediately, defunding the police. The empirical literature demonstrating that high police staffing levels reduce crime is robust. American cops are bad at solving murders, but they’re pretty good at sitting in parked cars. And all else equal, people are less likely to commit a violent crime in a moment of passion if a police car is in their immediate vicinity. Even criminologists who support reductions in policing, like Fordham’s John Pfaff, do not deny this finding. If leftists wish to persuade the unconverted that they take public safety seriously, I don’t think they should deny it either.

But just because police deter crime, it does not necessarily follow that it wouldn’t be cost effective, from a public safety perspective, to reallocate police funding to other public goods. Cost-benefit analyses of police funding uniformly neglect to account for both the social costs of policing and the opportunity costs of investing in cops instead of other social needs.

Investing in policing may reduce rates of victimization. But it does so at a price not captured in any fiscal budget: the needless deaths caused by trigger-happy officers; young Black men’s routine experience of harassment, discrimination, and/or nonlethal forms of police violence, and the physical and emotional toll of those experiences. If police primarily deter crime through their mere presence (and the threat of legal consequences it projects), then it is plausible that a different category of public servant could serve much the same function, at a lower social cost. As a team of scholars at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice noted last year, many so-called Business Improvement Districts already successfully rely on unarmed security guards to deter criminal activity.

As for the opportunity cost: One recent study from researchers at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania suggested that American cities are under-policed, as every additional dollar spent on policing yields $1.63 in savings from crime reduction. Yet a separate study published the same year found that each new dollar invested in drug-treatment programs may produce nearly $4 worth of crime preemption.

Wherever a progressive (or abolitionist) falls on the “defund” question, though, the moral and political imperative to evince concern for rising homicide remains the same. Those who suffer most from the dual oppressions of abusive policing and concentrated violence deserve both justice and safety. To deliver for that constituency, the left must convince a broader public that those aren’t competing goods. When we belittle criminal violence, we sound unconvinced.

Progressives Don’t Need to Downplay Rising Homicides