The Murder Spike.

            As the Covid-19 pandemic tide ebbs, all sorts of things come into plain view.  One unsightly revelation is the sharp rise in homicides during 2020.  Overall, the number of murders in major cities rose by more than a third (37 percent) over 2019.[1]  The number of the slain rose by 40 percent in New York, 58 percent in Atlanta, 62 percent in New Orleans, 74 percent in Seattle, 78 percent in Louisville, and by 95 percent in Milwaukee.  Taking New York City as an example, in 2006 there were 596 homicides; in 2009, there were 471 homicides; and in 2017, there were 292 homicides.  During 2020 there were 447 homicides.[2]    

            The resulting sorrow is unevenly distributed.  The violence hit the borough of Brooklyn hard: homicides rose almost 70 percent.  More strikingly still, 10 of the city’s 77 police precincts, representing 13 percent of the city’s population, accounted for 34.2 percent of the homicides. 

            What brought down the number of homicides?  What caused them to surge upward once more?  The truth is that no one is sure.  In some minds, the murder spike resulted from “frustration, anger,…trauma and mental health challenges” inflicted by the pandemic and its attendant lock-downs.[3]  In some minds, two decades of aggressive and targeted policing brought down murder rates; while the progressive reforms of recent years handcuffed the police.  The 1994 Crime Bill added 100,000 police to American forces, while greatly increasing prison space.  Policies like “stop and frisk” in high-crime areas, high cash bail and long periods awaiting trial, and mass incarceration, it is argued, cut down the freedom of action allowed to criminals.  These policies may—or may not—have driven down crime levels.  They undoubtedly spawned a political backlash that decried mass incarceration and disparate effects of policing. 

            New York City embraced the new attitude.  In 2014, the city stopped appealing a court verdict against “stop and frisk” policing; the police then greatly reduced their use of the practice.  In 2019, the city announced a plan the close the gigantic Riker’s Island jail and to limit the city’s jail population to a much lower total of 3,300 inmates.  In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, the City Council passed further reforms.  These included a $1 billion cut in the police department’s budget, and explicit restrictions on the use of things like choke-holds.[4]  The budget cut led the NYPD to skip recruiting an entire class of new officers.  The state did its part as well.  In 2017, it raised the age of criminal responsibility, making it more difficult to charge 16- and 17-year olds as adults.  In 2020, it passed bail reform to reduce cash bail. 

In short, say conservatives, the reformers shifted the balance of forces on the streets of crime-plagued areas between the police and the criminals.  One result, they say, is that many police have backed off from pro-actively enforcing the laws, while others have retired. 

For the last decade, Blacks and Hispanics have born the burden of gun violence (95 percent) and that trend continued through 2020.  If Black Lives Matter, then do all Black lives matter or just those taken by the police?  It’s a choice facing progressives.  


[1] Heather MacDonald, “Taking Stock of a Most Violent Year,” WSJ, 25 January 2021. 

[2] Rafael A. Mangual, “The Homicide Spike Is Real,” NYT, 20 January 2021. 

[3] Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, quoted in MacDonald, “Taking Stock.” 

[4] For what it’s worth, see Joseph Wambaugh, The Onion Field, where the opinion is offered that it is really hard to subdue those resisting arrest without using choke-holds. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s