The killings increased as some law enforcement officials and conservative commentators were warning that violent crime was on the rise amid a climate of hostility toward police. They said protests and intense scrutiny of officers who used lethal force had caused officers to become disengaged from their jobs, making streets more dangerous. Some have called it the "Ferguson effect," after the St. Louis suburb in which Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014.
A closer look at the figures, however, suggests no single explanation for the increases and reveals no clear pattern among those cities that experienced the most horrific violence.
Let's just take a pause there.
First, when murder is up in nearly three-quarters of your largest cities, and the overall spike is the largest in decades, what kind of a "clear pattern" do you want? There were major increases from coast to coast.
Second, notice the straw man. Who outside Wonkblog suggested there was a "single explanation?"
Third, even at that, Wonkblog's scurrying for cover seems half-hearted. There is no denial that the increase is shocking and dangerous; there's merely an attempt to diffuse the blame and push it off onto The Person Behind the Tree.
Thus, the piece continues:
[U]ndermining the theory that police have become generally disengaged, a preliminary FBI report released last week showed that the overall number of violent offenses increased just 1.7 percent nationally during the first half of the year while the number of property crimes declined 4.2 percent.
Again note the straw man. No one has said the police have become "generally disengaged." The argument is that, where danger is lurking, and the officer might at one time have decided to step out of his car to investigate, more frequently now he'll decide to keep on driving. That is an increase in caution, not "general disengagement."
Note too the dismissal of the increase in violent crime. What gets (almost surely intentionally) omitted is that violent crime rates had been falling, with very few exceptions, for the last 25 consecutive years (see this Table).
With this as the set-up, let the Ode to Complacency begin. Because, hey, look, ya know:
Public safety has been improving for two decades, and lethal violence in large cities is still rare by historical standards. Twice as many people were killed in those 50 cities in 1991 as in 2015. "You certainly wouldn't want to say the sky is falling," said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
Nothing to see here, people. Move along.
Still, some explanations do get mentioned, if a bit sheepishly:
[L]ast year's interruption in the decline in homicides has experts concerned. They say it's too early to know what caused the change, or whether it will endure. It's not clear if there is a Ferguson effect, or if the homicides are a result of the heroin epidemic, reduced police department budgets, a decline in the number of convicts behind bars or other factors entirely.
For liberals, it's always a big mystery and "too early to know." When I read that one, it reminded me of the NYT's befuddled headline from years ago (after Giuliani had been in office for several years with his Broken Windows policing strategy), to the effect that crime in New York City had fallen dramatically, but why was, ummmmm, anyone's guess.
Wonkblog's list of "possible-but-who-knows" causes nonetheless struck me as a backhanded admission that some of these conservative ideas might have something to them. Thus:
-- Yes, when the police feel intimidated, and think the authorities are more eager to score politically correct points than to back them up, there is going to be a decrease in proactive policing, and in turn an increase in crime. As if this were rocket science.
-- Yes, heroin trafficking is a dirty, violent business, and when it's on the rise (as it has been, dramatically, during at least President Obama's second term), that is likely to result in more murder.
-- Yes, when you cut back on the resources available to the police and start down the road toward disarming them (disarming is called "demilitarization" by those who view rioting as a slightly ill-mannered form of "protest"), you can expect more crime, violent crime included.
--Yes, with a recidivism rate of over 70% for violent offenders (according to this BJS study of 30 state systems), when the prison population goes down, as it has for approximately the last three years, crime rates will start heading back up. To dismiss the incapacitating effects of incarceration is just nonsense, as we are now finding out.
There is more to say about Wonkblog's odd mixture of damning admissions and appeals to complacency, but I'll end this long entry here for now, with more to add later.
UPDATE: The ever up-to-the-minute Doug Berman notes on SL&P:
Bill quickly mentions "that the increase in murder in 2015 was more than 25 times the total number of killers executed that year," but he disappointingly does not follow-up by noting that the one major city with the biggest decline in homicides in 2015 was also the city with the most headline-grabbing 2015 capital punishment trial: Boston. I am generally disinclined to suggest there is a close relationship between the administration of the death penalty and homicide rates...
Of course I never said or implied that there is a close relationship, or any relationship, between the administration of the death penalty and homicide rates. I used the comparison to illustrate a very, very odd contrast Doug doesn't mention: The Left is appalled by the death penalty and writes one outraged article after the next about how it's a "crisis of conscience" a troglodyte America needs to fix. This has gone on for as long as I've been a lawyer. But when the homicide number explodes, and the year-over-year increase is two dozen times the number of executions, is the Left outraged? Let me put that differently: Does it take even slight notice, does it say anything at all, beyond telling us it's, hey, not that much to worry about?
What makes this particularly odd, and revealing, is that the Left full well knows that African Americans are disproportionately represented in the increased number of murder victims (and in all crime victimization, as I noted here). When hundreds more African Americans are murdered -- in the penultimate year of the first African American President's term, no less -- you would think the Left would spend at least a modicum of its usually plentiful inventory of outrage.
You would need to think again.
Still, in his very last remark, Doug remains his often candid self. He notes:
...but I still find notable that the dozen cities with the largest homicide increases in 2015 are all in states without the death penalty or with a capital punishment system not functioning properly.
True. Unfortunately, the death penalty is used too infrequently to have a significant overall deterrent effect, so I very much doubt its use or disuse over one year has much if anything to do with that year's shocking increase in murders.