Murder Rates Rise Steeply In US Cities: Experts Can’t Agree On The Reasons Why

Murder rates are rising in many U.S. cities after homicides had declined in recent years in many urban areas. Experts are searching for the reason for this but don’t have a definitive answer. The numbers are shocking; compared to 2014, homicide is up 76 percent in Milwaukee, 60 percent in St. Louis, 56 percent in Baltimore, and 44 percent in Washington, D.C. New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, Missouri, and Dallas all have over 15 percent murder rate increases.

A New York Times article by Monica Davy and Rich Smith summed up the observations that many analysts have made about the rise in murder rates.

“Some officials say intense national scrutiny of the use of force by the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals, though many experts dispute that theory.

Rivalries among organized street gangs, often over drug turf, and the availability of guns are cited as major factors in some cities, including Chicago. But more commonly, many top police officials say they are seeing a growing willingness among disenchanted young men in poor neighborhoods to use violence to settle ordinary disputes.”

Michael S. Harrison, the superintendent of police in New Orleans, where murder rates are up 22 percent over the same period last year, was quoted in the New York Times.

“That is not a situation that can be solved by policing. It speaks to a culture of violence deeply ingrained into a community — a segment of the population where people are resolving their problems in a violent way.”

Harrison said that the murder rate rise didn’t seem to be related to gangs or robberies of strangers. He said that more homicides seem to be happening in homes or cars, in situations where the victim knows the killer.

One theory held by some is that there is a “Ferguson effect.” The theory holds that police have become less aggressive, fearing hostile reaction from the minority community, since the highly controversial deaths of minority men engaged with police in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, and elsewhere recently. Since police are less willing to engage, goes the theory, criminals feel that they’re more likely to get away without being caught and commit more crimes. However, some experts say there is not good data to support this yet. A University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist pointed out that the homicide rate in St. Louis was already rising before teenager Michael Brown was killed by an officer in Ferguson in August 2014.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, writes about African-American issues. He criticized the Times article in a piece in the Atlantic. He feels that the Times piece gives too much credence to the “Ferguson effect,” a theory which Coates feels lays the blame for rising murder rates at the foot of the people who protested against the police.

Another theory for the murder rate rise is that it’s caused by the prevalence of guns in city neighborhoods. In Milwaukee, most murders are gun murders, and most of the killers and the victims are people who have previously been arrested. Some analysts think, therefore, that cracking down on repeat offenders with gun-related convictions might ease the problem.

A USA Today article in July pointed out that Milwaukee had the lowest homicide rate in the city’s history in 2014. So there is definitely a dramatic reversal of a trend going on. Police Chief Edward Flynn blames the rise in killings to what he calls Wisconsin’s “absurdly weak” gun laws.

Murder rates are rising in large U.S. cities for reasons that aren’t clear yet.

[Photo by Michael B. Thomas / Getty Images]