Close your eyes and you could be back in crime-ridden New York in the late 1980s. Last week’s mayoral debate was dominated by how candidates would tackle the city’s rising crime rates. The homicide rate in New York is up 43 percent last year – and is on track to be higher this year than last year.
The situation is even worse in Chicago, which is close to its peak in 1974, when nearly 1,000 people were murdered. The same in urban America. There is even speculation about a repeat of the suburban exodus of the late 1960s and 1970s.
It would be unfair to blame Joe Biden for this. But as president – and leader of the party that controls most major American cities – he will pay a price if it continues like this. The question is what he and local leaders can do about it.
The answer, unfortunately, is more complicated than simply beating the pandemic. Most of the rising murder rates in the country precedes last year’s lockdown, even as the coronavirus added to the blaze. For the first time since 1995, more than 20,000 Americans were murdered last year. Overall, homicides in the US were up a quarter from the 2019 level.
It would be easier to isolate causes if the problem were limited to a handful of places. But last year’s increase has ranged from predominantly white smaller cities to large multi-ethnic cities. It’s hard to find a broader cross-section of urban America than Philadelphia (40 percent), Houston (42 percent), Denver (51 percent), and Washington DC (19 percent). Yet they point in the same direction. Most also had a significant increase in homicides in 2019. This year is already worse than last. Community leaders across America are bracing for a long hot summer.
Democrats will no doubt take on most of the heat, but the blame must be shared. The Republicans’ refusal to consider even the appearance of gun control remains serenely unshakable by mass shootings, which have skyrocketed this year.
Their default response is “thoughts and prayers” – and even more rights for gun owners. It is certainly no coincidence that the nation’s era of declining crime, which began in the 1990s and bottomed out in 2014, coincided with a ten-year ban on assault weapons. The measure was contained in a 1994 bill co-sponsored by Biden, then a Delaware senator. Aside from a possible tightening of background checks, Biden doesn’t seem able to convince this Congress to pass serious gun control.
The Republicans’ aversion to police reform is another recurring problem. One reason relations between communities and law enforcement have become so dire is that so many minorities don’t trust them.
Biden wants to pass a bill to reduce the “ qualified immunity ” that makes it so difficult to prosecute offending officers, except in extreme cases like Derek Chauvin, who was convicted last month for the murder of George Floyd. While it is extremely rare to convict a police officer, the bill is unlikely to get anywhere.
But the Democrats also bear a lot of blame for what goes wrong. Biden has always rejected the “defund the police” campaigners. If he hadn’t, Donald Trump might have won last year’s election. Cities where police nearly withdrew in the face of protests last year suffered some of the highest jumps in murder rates. These include Minneapolis (75 percent), Portland, Oregon (60 percent), and Seattle (41 percent). Seattle only dismantled a police-free ‘autonomous zone’ last year after a spate of local killings.
As a rallying cry, “defund the police” makes activists enthusiastic. Most Americans, including African Americans, are less well off. It is noteworthy that the two New York mayoral candidates leading the pack – Andrew Yang and Eric Adams – have been most outspoken in condemning “defund the police.” Dianne Morales, the candidate who most openly embraced it, only polls 5 percent. According to Gallup, only a fifth of African Americans want less police on the streets. The evidence supports them. Where the police are more visible, crime usually falls.
There are other reasons for the increasing crime, such as the increasing unaffordability of cities and the rise of tolerance in prosecution. This has largely reversed the era of “ zero tolerance ” in the 1990s for petty crimes that were thought to engender a culture of impunity.
Used syringes, heralding a return to the street drug trade, and chronic homelessness are once again becoming widespread in American cities, even New York. Fair or not, liberals will take the most blame if such trends continue. It is unlikely that Biden will escape the backlash.