Homicides are outpacing COVID deaths in the District and in other major cities, prompting former law enforcement officials to sound the alarm on the nationwide effort on the part of some activists and politicians to defund police departments.
In the nation’s capital, there were eight deaths from COVID-19 in July. But the District recorded 20 homicides last month, bringing the year’s total to 114, already surpassing last year’s homicides total of 109 with five more months to go.
“We are all concerned about the pandemic. We have a pandemic of violence that is sweeping this nation and we have an opportunity to stop it but it is going to take leadership not just from law enforcement but from all levels,” said Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith, a spokesperson for the National Police Association.
Washington is not alone. Other cities are also seeing COVID deaths ticking down while violence is on the rise.
Philadelphia had 22 COVID deaths and 34 homicides last month. Cook County, which encompasses much of Chicago, had 74 COVID deaths in July and 105 homicides.
In New York City, there were 243 COVID deaths in July and 245 homicides.
Social justice activists blame the increase in homicides and crime on the lack of jobs and resources available to needy urban communities during the pandemic.
Some medical experts, too, said homicides will continue to outpace COVID deaths as more people get vaccinated.
Los Angeles County, unlike the other major cities, falls outside the trend in lower COVID deaths to homicides, as does Austin. LA saw 39 homicides but 136 COVID deaths last month. Austin had 15 COVID deaths and 4 homicides in July.
However, officials caution that homicide numbers can change depending on rulings from medical examiners and whether an injured victim succumbs to injuries.
Austin has had more homicides in 2021 than it had last year, while LA already reached more than 180 from January through July.
Dr. Jane Orient, executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, said there’s health-related — and political — reasons for the increasing crime.
“Increasing tolerance of lawlessness, failure to prosecute offenders, increased drug and alcohol use with lockdowns, diverting resources to enforcing masks, defunding police, etc.,” she said. “Local leaders are certainly responsible.”
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said with vaccination rates increasing, it’s not surprising homicides are outpacing COVID deaths.
“It’s not surprising that deaths from other causes are surpassing COVID deaths in some areas as the vaccination of the highest risk persons tames the virus. As more high-risk individuals are vaccinated, COVID will transition to more resemble ordinary respiratory viruses we deal with year and year out with a baseline level of deaths,” he said.
Law enforcement sees the push from activists to defund the police after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a White police officer in Minneapolis last year, in many cities and the anti-police rhetoric from politicians as a contributing factor to a lack of proactive policing, which results in the increased violent crime.
“It’s knocking on our front door — violent crime — just like COVID,” said Ms. Brantner Smith. “I hope these big-city mayors do not use the pandemic as a way to distract from talking about violent crime and taking responsibility for it.”
Patrice Sulton, executive director of DC Justice Lab and a civil rights attorney, said the pandemic and homicide rates are interrelated, blaming the increasing crime on unemployment and families struggling to feed their children — not on a lack of policing.
“We have had this pandemic that has affected all of us across the country so it shouldn’t be surprising that it has devastated some communities even more,” she said.
Erik Salmi, communications director for D.C. council member Charles Allen, said gun violence, like COVID, is a public health crisis.
“If we approached gun violence with the same well-rounded, all-of-government approach as we have the pandemic, we’d see better outcomes,” he said.
But in a press release earlier this month, the D.C. Police Union said the city council hasn’t given officers the resources needed to tackle the increasing homicides in the district.
The group conducted a recent survey, finding residents pointed to crime and safety as the No. 1 concern, noting 71% oppose cutting funding for officers while 75% disagreed with decreasing the size of the district’s police force.
“This survey makes it clear that DC residents want our elected leadership to do more to stop crime and an overwhelming majority are opposed to ‘reform’ efforts that shrink the police force and defund it.” said Greggory Pemberton, chairman of the DC Police Union,
“We’ve been warning about the negative repercussions of these misguided efforts over the past year, and now that we’ve all seen the tragic results.”
Ms. Brantner Smith, meanwhile, suggested stop and frisk policies could help get guns off the streets and prevent homicides.
Bail reform in some cities has also allowed murderers back on the streets, suggesting that could be contributing to the crime levels with those individuals reoffending.
Chicago Alderman Matt O’Shea and Alderman Gilbert Villegas both said leaders in their city must hold criminals, specifically gun offenders, accountable.
“The data shows us that many shooters will re-offend,” said Mr. O’Shea. “Federal intervention is also key; bringing more gun cases in federal court, with their longer sentencing standards, would help stem the tide of violence in our city.”
Mr. Villegas said police in the city are working hard, and it is time for the state’s attorney to get more aggressive in locking individuals up who are caught illegally carrying a firearm.
“They are back out on the street in some cases quicker than the police can process the paperwork,” he said.
A spokesperson for the city of Philadelphia said gun violence has also been an issue there, adding the pandemic has impacted police and community engagement. “Fortunately, Philadelphia has successfully vaccinated more than 75% of adult residents which is why our COVID hospitalizations and deaths have declined significantly over the last few months,” the spokesperson said. “Over the last two weeks we’ve seen declining rates of homicides.”
The city spokesperson also noted Philadelphia, unlike the other major cities, did not defund the police, saying, “last month we committed a record $158 million in funding this year to an array of anti-violence initiatives.”
The District, like many other major Democrat-led cities, did reduce the law enforcement budget by $15 million last year and that led to a decrease in hiring for the police force, according to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office.
A spokesperson for Ms. Bowser did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the number of homicides versus COVID deaths.
The Metropolitan Police Department said it declined to comment.
Ms. Bowser recently asked for $11 million in a supplemental budget to allow for the hiring of more than 150 officers.
“Right now, I have directed MPD to use any overtime necessary to meet our public safety demands. But we know that is not a complete solution or the right long-term solution. We also know we need all of our officers to be fresh, rested, and in the best position to make good decisions — and that requires having a full force to meet all of our community’s needs,” Ms. Bowser said in a statement last month.
“The department is in a good position to make additional hires and move swiftly to close the gap between attrition and hiring, and that’s what this plan is going to help us do,” she added.
• Alex Swoyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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