Violent crime is trending up. But why?
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”
Today's read: 13 minutes.
We're skipping our reader question today to focus on our main story: violent crime.
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- President Biden issued punishing sanctions against Russia, calling their moves into Ukraine an "invasion." (The sanctions) Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky introduced a 30-day national emergency and called up military reservists between the age of 18 and 60. (The emergency)
- The Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed to decide whether a conservative Christian woman who designs websites has a free speech right to turn away same-sex couples. (The case)
- Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan, who were convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, were also found guilty of federal hate crimes by a Georgia jury. (The ruling)
- Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds will deliver the GOP's response to President Biden's first State of the Union address next week. (The response)
- 700 National Guard troops will patrol Washington D.C. as preparation for the arrival of a convoy of truckers planning to protest pandemic restrictions. (The plan)
Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.
Violent crime. Over the last few months, a debate has been raging about the rise in violent crime across the United States. It's important to note here that, while the trends all appear similar, there can be slight discrepancies between FBI data and data from independent studies on crime, and that 2021 data are still considered to be estimates.
But in 2020, murders in the U.S. went up 30%, the largest single year increase in sixty years. In 2021, new data are showing murders rising again, this time at a slower rate, but now reaching similar levels to the mid-1990s, when murders in the U.S. were near an all-time high (there were 7.4 murders per 100,000 people in 1996; there were an estimated 6.9 murders per 100,000 people in 2021).
Those data, from well-known crime analyst Jeff Asher, were published around the same time the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) released its own report. CCJ looked at crime data from 22 cities and found a 5% increase in homicides from 2020 and a 44% increase over 2019. The FBI estimates there were 21,570 murders in the U.S. last year.
Six of the 22 cities, including Seattle (-25%) and Omaha (-24%) saw their murder rates drop in 2021, according to CCJ. The overall rates, according to Asher's data, are still short of the 9.5 murders per 100,000 people we saw in 1993. Additionally, while murder and violent crimes have risen during the pandemic, others crimes have fallen. Murders in the U.S. are still concentrated in major cities. Most homicides victims are Black, and Black Americans were eight times more likely to be murder victims in 2020 than white Americans.
In January, two New York City Police officers — Wilbert Mora and Jason Rivera — were shot and killed while responding to a call, which reignited concerns about the violence in major U.S. cities and tensions between police and the communities they serve. Earlier this month, 22-year-old Amir Locke was killed by Minneapolis police during a no-knock warrant raid, despite not being named on the warrant, reigniting criticism of police actions in Minneapolis and no-knock warrants nationally. Police killed an estimated 1,134 people in the U.S. in 2021.
Many conservatives have criticized liberal policies, like the "defund the police" movement or cash bail reform (which in some cases allows criminals to be freed while awaiting trial) for the rise in violent crime. Many liberals, meanwhile, contend it’s an increase in gun ownership and other pandemic-related causes that have led to the spike.
While issues related to crime can be a priority for voters in local races, polling consistently shows it does not rank very highly for voters when asked about the most important issues facing the country as a whole.
Below, we'll take a look at a few arguments from those on the right and left, then my take.
What the right is saying.
- The right argues that the "defund the police" movement has caused rising crime.
- They point to progressive policies like bail reform for a spike in violence on the streets.
- Many also call out "The Ferguson effect" as a reason for increased homicides.
In The Wall Street Journal, William Galston said Biden should follow the lead of New York City mayor Eric Adams.
"Mr. Adams has criticized his own party’s approach to criminal justice. While Democrats are comfortable prescribing solutions for 'root causes' of crime, such as poor education and inadequate economic development, Mr. Adams said they 'cringe' when beefed-up policing is on the table. But Democrats can’t avoid what he regards as the most urgent question: How can we use police properly to get 'the justice we deserve and the safety we need?'
"In the early 1990s, when violent crime reached a modern high, [Biden] was a leading advocate for the policies that culminated in the 1994 Clinton crime bill," Galston wrote. "He subsequently expressed regret for some of the law’s consequences, including an excessive reliance on long-term incarceration of drug offenders, but nevertheless, during the 2020 presidential campaign, he rejected demands to defund the police and kept the proposal out of the Democratic Party’s platform. He was right to do so. In 2020 homicides surged 30%, the largest single-year increase ever recorded. Although the increase seems to have slowed in 2021, rising violent-crime rates have elevated public concerns about the security of communities around the country. Last fall’s mayoral elections confirmed that the tide had turned against reducing police department budgets and toward giving the police what they needed to restore public safety."
Jason Riley wrote about "the predictable consequences" of the “defund the police” movement.
"Murder rose by nearly 30% last year, and Americans have been making it as clear as can be that they want more and better policing," Riley said. "The incoming mayors of Atlanta, New York and Seattle ran campaigns that prioritized public safety. A ballot initiative in Minneapolis that would have dismantled the police department was defeated soundly, and some of the strongest opposition came from low-income black communities.
"We are reminded almost weekly of the tragic failure of bail reform and other soft-on-crime initiatives that have frustrated the efforts of police, prosecutors and judges to keep suspects with long criminal records off the streets. The man charged with driving his SUV through a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wis., last month, killing six, had been released five days earlier on $1,000 bail in another violent felony case. The man charged last week in the fatal shooting of a music producer’s 81-year-old wife in her Beverly Hills, Calif., home is a career criminal who was out on parole. The suspect in the stabbing death of a Columbia University graduate student last week is a convicted felon and gang member who has been arrested 11 times since 2012, according to the New York Post."
Charles Fain Lehman said we have two new studies showing the Ferguson effect, where public scrutiny reduced police proactivity and led to an increase in violent crime.
"The more-recent study, just published in the Journal of Public Economics by university economists Cheng Cheng and Wei Long, looks at the effect of [Michael] Brown’s death on police activity and crime on a week-to-week level in St. Louis (which is near Ferguson), and on a month-to-month level in 60 big cities," he wrote. "Their findings manage somehow to be both unsurprising and shocking. In the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death, self-initiated arrests fell 62 percent. Similar declines are seen across nine out of 11 categories of self-initiated activities, including foot patrol (down 82 percent) and pedestrian checks (76 percent). Notably, the decline in arrests is concentrated among misdemeanor arrests (more discretionary than felonies) and among arrests of blacks (rather than whites). This reduction in police activity persisted for at least the next two years. In the same period, the city experienced a significant rise in homicide and aggravated assault.
"But what about the effects of officer-involved fatalities in general? A second study, by Deepak Premkumar of the Public Policy Institute of California, compares arrest patterns among police departments in 52 cities that experienced high-profile shooting incidents to 2,688 police departments that did not—and comes to a similar conclusion," Lehman said. "Just as in Cheng and Long’s study, Premkumar finds that police reduce their activity—as measured by arrests—after a high-profile incident, but not evenly. He finds large average declines in arrests for minor offenses (up to 33 percent for marijuana possession) but no significant decline in arrests for major offenses, whether violent crime or property crime. At the same time, cities that experienced high-profile incidents, relative to those that did not, saw a 10 percent to 17 percent increase in murders and robberies, as well as small increases in theft and grand theft auto."
What the left is saying.
- The left says progressive policies are not at the root of rising crime.
- They argue for more gun control and jobs programs.
- They fear a return to 'tough-on-crime' policies that existed in the 1990s.
In The Washington Post, EJ Dionne said if you want to fight crime, take on the gun lobby.
"If you want to talk about those blinding themselves to rising violence, start with the politicians and jurists who offer abstract and ahistorical readings of the Second Amendment to prevent mayors, police officers and lawmakers from getting guns off our streets. Consider how distorted our political dialogue has become, abetted by how the politics of crime are covered in the media. A dead-as-a-doornail slogan, 'defund the police,' continues to take center stage. But a genuinely powerful movement that handcuffs efforts to fight mayhem by stemming the flow of guns into our neighborhoods continues to get a pass.
"If politicians in Washington were serious about rising crime, they would take a whole series of steps to limit the spread of weapons," Dionne wrote. "The Senate could start by enacting two modest bills already passed by the House last year. One required background checks for all gun buyers. The other extended the time the FBI would have to check on those trying to buy guns who are flagged by the nation’s instant check system. But no, in a Senate where big cities facing the most serious crime problems are wildly underrepresented, the gun lobby rules. And we just accept this as a fact of life. Conservative members of that body are so committed to fighting crime that they’re willing to do ... nothing about the weapons our current laws allow to be so widely available."
In The Nation, Sasha Abramsky expressed concern that a disgruntled public may "lurch rightward" on criminal justice issues.
"There’s a very real risk that murder rates won’t plateau but will just keep heading north, fueled by a lethal combination of too much psychic and economic unraveling caused by the pandemic, and by America’s quarter-century-long gun-buying spree," Abramsky wrote. "By the end of 2021, there were over 400 million guns in America, with roughly 81 million Americans owning these weapons... In the first 51 weeks of 2021, over 20,000 Americans lost their lives to gun violence, and another nearly 40,000 were shot and injured. Just in the six days from December 13 to 19, according to data from the Gun Violence Archive, 350 people were fatally shot in the United States.
"In the 1980s and ’90s, public fear of violent crime led to a backlash against liberal criminal justice reforms," Abramsky added. "The result was financially and morally catastrophic: the rise of a mass incarceration society in which politicians and electorates alike cast common sense to the wind and embraced unprecedentedly punitive, and ham-handed, sentencing strategies such as 'three strikes, you’re out.' These strategies ended up destroying the lives of millions of people, breaking low-income and minority communities, and, over the course of several decades, emptying public coffers of hundreds of billions of dollars... That is why it’s vital that progressive states, and progressive organizers, do everything in their power to turn the tide against this violence, and against the almost casual usage of guns that’s taking place around the country these days."
The New York Times editorial board wrote about how to address crime in New York and other big cities.
"The challenge will be how to make the city safer without reverting to the over policing, especially in Black and Latino communities, seen under previous mayors," the board said. "Mr. Adams promised better oversight of the new anti-gun units, and in the coming days, New Yorkers deserve to know more about what that oversight will be and how it will work. It was promising to hear the mayor focus on jobs for young people. Saying that roughly 250,000 people ages 16 to 24 are neither in school nor employed, he promised an 'unprecedented' summer jobs program for youth. That’s a good start, but ultimately, these young people will need the skills and help to find permanent, well-paying jobs. Other proposals by the mayor deserve more scrutiny. One of his ideas — allowing 16- and 17-year-old repeat offenders arrested on gun charges to be charged in criminal court instead of family court — should be a nonstarter.
"Mr. Adams also said he would campaign to roll back provisions in the state’s 2019 bail reforms and push for a change that would allow judges to consider 'dangerousness' when setting bail. If these changes will make New Yorkers safer, lawmakers should consider them. But the burden of proof lies with those who want to undo these important reforms," the board added. "The causes of crime are complex, and New York’s rise in shootings mirrors a national trend. Homicides during the pandemic, for instance, have been on the rise in cities run by Republicans and Democrats, cities that liberalized their anti-crime policies and those that did not."
I've written about crime and policing in America before and at this point I think long-time readers have a good idea where I stand: Somewhere among the left and Libertarians. As I've said previously, my most radical political position is that we shouldn't lock human beings in cages as a form of punishment or rehabilitation. It's a stance I think is fairly benign if you consider it for more than a few minutes (and shed some of the societal indoctrination that has taught us such a practice is normal or effective).
But a future where prisons don't exist is not something that can happen by flipping a switch, nor would it solve our present-day issues. It's more of my own personal pipe dream (for now). So, with the requisite caveat that crime is complex and the answer is not singular, I'll tell you the flaws I see in the left's argument, and then why I think they get most of this story right.
Politically, I think the left's response to the rise in violent crime — which is real — has been inadequate and self-defeating. Saying things aren't as bad as the 1990s, or that other crime is going down, or that it's just the guns, is not something that quells the fears of most Americans. It also ignores the very real difficulty police face in urban enclaves, namely that they seem to be hated and feared by a large chunk of the population they are supposed to be serving. Of course, decades of discriminatory policing, stop and frisk, police brutality and other tough-on-crime legacies are responsible for that tension — it's there, and the "defund the police" movement has almost certainly thrown gas on it.
More tangibly, though, the predominant progressive (not Democratic, but progressive left) angle on policing seems divorced from what many people of color, city-dwellers or low-income Americans want (a reminder that "Black" or "African American" is not synonymous with "urban" or "poor" — the majority of African Americans live both above the poverty line and outside of inner cities). Poll after poll shows Americans living in big cities want better policing, not fewer cops on the streets. Polling conducted last year found that New Yorkers in the Bronx, a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood, were more in favor of adding uniformed cops on the subway (81% approve) than Manhattanites (62% approve), who are majority white. One-third of white New Yorkers disapproved of increasing police on the subways compared to just 14% of Black residents.
"Defunding the police," pulling them back or replacing them wholesale with a Department of Public Safety, is not a winning issue with most of the constituents these reforms are supposed to help. That is likely because most of those people understand police presence, as a near-term solution, can reduce crime.
Nekima Levy Armstrong, a Minneapolis lawyer and the founder of the Racial Justice Network, wrote about the Minneapolis ballot measure to replace the police department this way:
While many white progressives embraced the ballot measure as a sign of progress, many Black residents like me raised concerns that the plan lacked specificity and could reduce public safety in the Black community without increasing police accountability. The city’s largest Black neighborhoods voted it down, while support was greater in areas where more white liberals lived... What many Black people are demanding is a system that is effective, cost-efficient, nonmilitarized and transparent. We want officials to be accountable for who is hired, how they are disciplined and how they treat us. We want police leaders to admit that racism, white supremacy and misogyny are endemic in many police forces and we want them to commit to radically shift police culture... Black lives need to be valued not just when unjustly taken by the police, but when we are alive and demanding our right to be heard, to breathe, to live in safe neighborhoods and to enjoy the full benefits of our status as American citizens
In some ways, I think progressive activists (and right-wing media personalities who have tried to frame them as the representative Democratic viewpoint) have hijacked the conversation from "ordinary" Americans who are actually most impacted by crime and bad policing.
But that brings me to what the left gets right: The case that the "defund the police" movement or progressive policies have ushered in the rise in crime is tenuous, at best. For starters, police haven't been defunded. In many big cities, they're getting more funding, not less. The "defund the police" movement has failed in Democratic politics and been rejected wholesale, both by the current president and the leaders of his party. Many Democrats now blame progressives for the movement costing them politically. So if the argument is that police are simply policing less because the job is dangerous or because the people they're policing hate them, that's a much different argument than departments losing funding and not being able to do their jobs.
And if the latter is the case, there is a level of responsibility that falls into the laps of those officers. The Ferguson effect, the idea that increased scrutiny causes police to interact with the public less, is in part a tacit admission that police are choosing not to do the very job we pay them to do.
Second is that we can look at how progressive policies impact crime in cities, because cities across America have different district attorneys, mayors and leaders directing policy. And we can see that progressive policies had little impact on homicides across cities. There is a lot of research out there to suggest that policies like not jailing defendants while they await trial or not imprisoning people for petty offenses like shoplifting or trespassing does not increase crime.
And then there are the things we do know: We know a vast majority of violent crime is driven by societal ills like addiction, poverty and joblessness. We also know that eight in ten U.S. murders in 2020 involved a firearm. And we know that in 2020 and 2021, at the same time that we were hit by a global pandemic (and Covid-19 related mitigation measures), millions of people lost their jobs, there was an increase in addiction and overdoses, an increase in social anxiety, the second-highest number of guns ever purchased and an overall rise in poverty.
Does that mean anti-police activism or progressive policies didn't impact crime at all? Of course not. Some new police chiefs have made a compelling case that getting cops re-engaged on the job has lowered crime rates. Other policies like bail reform, for instance, have produced some legitimate horror stories. But horror stories are anecdotal — they don't necessarily reflect the net positives, and they do very little to weigh the offsetting balance of, say, a working dad convicted of a petty crime who didn't have to spend months or years in jail waiting for a sentence, and thus was able to keep his job and life in order.
That's why I think, on the whole, the left's argument is stronger, albeit flawed in places. And it's why we should be careful not to overreact to this rise in crime by undoing policies that may not be causing harm or by just increasing police presence — especially not without also addressing a whole slew of other root causes behind what we're seeing.
Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.
A story that matters.
Companies are responding to high inflation and strong demand for workers by reviewing worker pay more frequently and offering other benefits to keep people on the job. Manufacturers and technology firms, in particular, say they are offering raises more regularly to workers to keep up with the rising wages and worker shortages. "Employers added 6.7 million jobs last year, yet U.S. job openings and worker turnover are hovering near their highest levels on record. Those trends are spurring wage growth. Wages climbed 5.7% in January from a year earlier, government data show, nearly double the average gain before the pandemic hit," The Wall Street Journal reported. "Full off-cycle salary reviews remain relatively rare, surveys show, and executives say companies can turn to other options, such as using one-time bonuses, expanding benefits or adding vacation days, to help retain workers without boosting wages." The WSJ has the story (paywall).
- 18,623. The number of law enforcement agencies in the country.
- 85%. The percentage of those law enforcement agencies that have submitted 2021 crime data so far.
- 9,941. The number of murder victims in 2020 who were Black.
- 7,043. The number of murder victims in 2020 who were white.
- 2,851. The number of murder victims in 2020 who were Hispanic.
Have a nice day.
The fossil of a 170 million year old pterosaur (commonly known as a pterodactyl) has been uncovered — and it is nearly flawless. The fossil is being called the world's best preserved skeleton of the prehistoric winged reptile, discovered in Isle of Skye in Scotland. The reptile had a wingspan of 8.2 feet, about the same size as an albatross. “Pterosaurs preserved in such quality are exceedingly rare and are usually reserved to select rock formations in Brazil and China. And yet, an enormous superbly preserved pterosaur emerged from a tidal platform in Scotland,” Natalia Jagielska, a doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh, said. The fossil has "feather light" bones "as thin as sheets of paper" and researchers now believe pterodactyls, the first vertebrates to fly (50 million years before birds) were larger than they thought. The Washington Post has the story.
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