the system

When the Crime Wave Recedes

The only certainty of America’s urban politics is that there will be more cops.

Photo: Jeenah Moon/REUTERS
Photo: Jeenah Moon/REUTERS

Between 2019 and 2021, the United States experienced a crime spike that defied tidy explanations. In 2019, the homicide rate was up 11 percent from 2014, and slightly higher than in 2018, then jumped another 29 percent in 2020, the biggest single-year increase in a century. The rate rose by 4 percent in 2021 — then, just as suddenly, it began to decline, a downward slope that prevailed through 2022. We’re still just over halfway through 2023, but early signs suggest that murders have fallen by double digits.

There are important caveats to these trends. Other kinds of violent crime, like robberies and burglaries, fluctuated more than homicides during that period. Murders are up in Memphis compared to the same time last year but down by 30 percent or more in cities like Atlanta and Minneapolis. Homicides in the U.S. hit their lowest rate in six decades in 2014, just six years before the latest spike, but that was still way higher than in any other developed economy. And even with the current drop, we’re seeing more murders today than we did in 2019.

Despite these confusing signals, there are some constants, like the fact that murder is most common where poverty and its related despairs are concentrated: poor Black neighborhoods. Other aspects are harder to diagnose. The homicide spike afflicted cities in disparate regions with little regard for whether they were large or small, run by Democrats or Republicans, or patrolled by a “tough on crime” prosecutor or a dovish “progressive.” Murder rates went up in 2020 in some of the most heavily policed cities, like Chicago, and are declining in others with fewer cops than they had in 2020, like New Orleans.

What has not changed, though, is the widespread belief that hiring more cops is the best way to reduce crime, despite the fact that there is little to no conclusive evidence this is true. While crime as a policy issue remains clouded by epistemological uncertainty, politicians and officials have never been more confident in the cure — a contrast that is especially stark now that the high tide of pandemic-era crime has receded, leaving us with far greater resources for policing than we had just a few years ago.

We actually know very little about what causes crime to rocket or crater. Even the big decline that began in the 1990s, and that continues to make today’s crime rates among the lowest in decades despite the recent uptick, is largely a mystery to experts. Police officials spent years touting the benefits of stop and frisk in New York, only to watch crime continue to fall after the city abandoned it. The post–George Floyd social order is characterized on the one hand by a steady push for more policing and an inexorable climb in police budgets and on the other by crime trends that are a mountain range of peaks and valleys, bouncing up and down with little rhyme or reason.

That’s not to say we’re totally flying blind. There’s growing evidence that the crime wave of 2020 stemmed from the pandemic-driven shuttering of institutions, like schools and community centers, that offer support to young people in crisis. There’s also evidence that crime rises after high-profile incidents of police abuse, like the murders of Floyd and Tyre Nichols in Memphis. On the flip side, a more visible police presence can function as a deterrent to some offenses. But overall, if you’re looking for a prescriptive solution, the available data is frustratingly hazy on the benefits of more policing.

That hasn’t stopped the political and pundit classes from insisting on those benefits anyway. “Spend this money now,” President Biden urged municipalities that got money from his COVID-relief bill last year, encouraging them to hire more cops. Sure enough, police officials are more than happy to conflate correlation with causation, enthusiastically taking credit for the recent decline. As Acting NYPD Commissioner Edward Caban told reporters in July, it was “no coincidence” that a drop in crime had coincided with his department’s use of “proactive” policing — code for Mayor Adams’s revival of stop-and-frisk-like practices.

What is clear amid so much uncertainty is that the negative effects of more policing have stayed relatively constant. Between the height of the 2020 Floyd protests — when the concept of defunding and even abolishing the police entered the lexicon — and the ensuing backlash that led Democrats at all levels of government, from Adams to Biden, to rush to prove they were “tougher” on crime than Republicans, the number of people killed by cops annually had remained steady and in some measurements had actually risen; 1,200 people were killed by police in 2022, 102 more than in 2019. If high-profile police killings are indeed a catalyst for crime spikes, then the most likely outcome of this pattern is that crime will spike again.

What is also clear, however, is that hiring more cops is politically popular. A Vox poll from 2019 found that more than 60 percent of Black, white, and Hispanic Americans supported increasing the number of police officers to deal with high crime.

Assuming the inevitability of these rewards has led politicians into some perilous waters. Residents of Atlanta are effectively split on their support for the city’s proposal for a new police training center, which would cost $90 million and has been nicknamed “Cop City” by its opponents. The project gained momentum amid rising anxiety about crime, which led the last mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, to abandon her reelection bid in 2021 and her successor, Andre Dickens, to win office by campaigning from her right. But since then, cops and protesters have clashed at the construction site, resulting in mass arrests and the slaying of an activist. A recent public-comment session attracted hundreds of opponents to the city-council chambers, belying the notion that Bottoms’s downfall amounted to a pro-cop mandate.

But for the most part, it appears Americans have made their choice. As the last few years snap into greater focus, putting the fading hopes of the Floyd uprising and the pandemic crime spike in new context, our politics of crime seem to have reverted to the mean. The difference is that voters and politicians alike are more aware of what the trade-offs are and are at peace with them.

We’re not just talking about police brutality, though it’s remarkable, if not surprising, how quickly people are willing to look away from it. Nor is the problem only that cops are enjoying a windfall just as the public-safety benefits of nonpolice entities — like those schools and community centers that are now struggling with post-pandemic cuts — are becoming more apparent. We’re talking about reinvesting in a culture of criminalization and punishment, where all manner of social ill is addressed using cops and jails.

America leads the world in both the rate and volume of people it locks away, which makes mass incarceration the most obvious consequence of this reinvestment. But there are also quality-of-life costs for people forced to live under the law’s constant suspicion and surveillance, and those are harder to measure. What about those who can’t move through their own neighborhoods without being stopped and searched? What about the millions of Americans who can’t vote, find housing, get hired for even menial jobs, or pay for food because they’re stuck in a legal choke hold that was first applied by the cops?

It’s not prison, but it’s not freedom either. At the very least, the drop in crime should encourage more humility about what hiring more cops is actually achieving, now that the pandemic has revealed how idiosyncratic American crime trends actually are. Instead, we’ve thrown out the logic of cause and effect and accepted that, regardless of what the data shows, we’ll keep indulging the same old delusions about the police.

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When the Crime Wave Recedes