In sending federal law enforcement agents to several cities beset by a spate of shootings and violence, U.S. President Donald Trump is primarily laying the blame on politically left-leaning mayors and governors and efforts to “defund” police departments.
“To look at it from any standpoint, the effort to shut down policing in their own communities has led to a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders, and heinous crimes of violence,” Trump said Wednesday as he announced dispatching federal law enforcement agents to Chicago and Albuquerque, New Mexico. “This bloodshed must end. This bloodshed will end.”
But experts say the picture is more complicated than the one the president paints. Although overall crime levels declined this year as people stayed home during the COVID-19 pandemic, a perfect storm of forces has led to spikes in homicides and shootings in many cities in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, murder rates have declined in other cities.
Criminologists say the exact drivers of the violence are hard to pinpoint. But they cite several contributing factors. Among them: warm summer weather, more people on the streets as states reopen their economies and a growing erosion of public trust in law enforcement amid the continued protests over the death of African American George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis in May.
“There has certainly been an increase in homicides and shootings this summer, but it is not possible to tell whether this is due to the pandemic, other factors, or just typical variation,” said David Abrams, a University of Pennsylvania professor of law and economics who has been tracking crime during the pandemic.
Here are some key factors in understanding the violence:
Where are the killings and shootings happening?
Most, though not all, major U.S. cities are seeing a spike in homicides and shootings. On average, homicides in 25 major American cities surged by double digits through early July.
Chicago is the deadliest city in the U.S. The third largest city by population has seen 414 murders this year, an increase of 51%, and 1,653 shooting incidents, up 47%, according to Chicago police data.
New York City, the largest U.S. city, recorded an increase of 23% in homicides this year, while Los Angles, the No. 2 city by population, has seen murders rise by 14%.
Smaller cities have also seen a surge in homicides. In Kansas City, where the fatal shooting of 4-year-old LeGend Taliferro in June prompted the Trump administration to dispatch agents there and to other cities, there have been 106 murders this year, up 34%.
It has been a different story in other major cities. Dallas and San Jose, among the ten most populous U.S. cities, recorded decreases in homicides of 4% and 21%, respectively.
What’s more, by historical standards, U.S. crime levels remain well below their peaks in the 1990s. In 1992, Chicago recorded 943 murders—or more than twice this year’s level.
Violence is concentrated in 'hot spots'
Shootings and homicides, as is often the case, typically are concentrated in so-called hot spots of cities—small slices of poor neighborhoods, sometimes the size of a city bock, with chronically high crime rates. For example, 28% of murders in Chicago took place in three of the city’s 25 districts.
Christopher Herrmann, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York Police Department data analyst, said the majority of shootings and homicides are gang- and drug-related.
In the latest instance in Chicago, 15 people were injured in a gang-related drive-by shooting on Tuesday at the funeral of a victim of an earlier drive-by shooting.
“There is a multiplication factor that happens when shootings like that happen,” Herrmann said. “The shooting that happened at the funeral is a classic kind of retribution style shooting.”
What’s driving the violence
While there is no single driver of the violence, criminologists say several factors may be contributing to the surge.
One is hot summertime weather. Typically, as the weather warms up and people spend more time outdoors, crime goes up. On average, shootings and homicides increase by about 30% in most cities, according to Herrmann.
Another factor is what Herrmann calls a “backlog of crime” created as would-be criminals stayed home at the height the pandemic. In April and May, homicides in 64 major American cities fell by 21.5% and 10%, respectively, according to a recent report by Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy.
“A lot of that violence that would have taken place in March, April and May, is now taking place in June, July, and August,” Herrmann said.
A loss of faith in law enforcement, amplified by protests over police brutality and racism, may also contribute, according to some criminologists.
"A lot of people feel like they need to take law into their own hands and become a vigilante and do their own thing as opposed to maybe wait on the police to try to solve the problem,” Herrmann said.
After the fatal shooting of African American Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, sparked protests over police brutality, a fall-off in policing activity was blamed for driving up homicides in cities such as Chicago and Baltimore.
Under-policing, according to some criminologists, could lead to a similar crime spree now.
“We may be in for the same thing in the wake of the George Floyd protests,” Thomas Abt, one of the authors of the Arnold Ventures report, told the philanthropy’s website.