People are dying—and I’m not talking about the pandemic. Cities across the country are reporting record homicide numbers in the first part of 2021. As warmer months tend to bring higher rates of violent crime, there’s good reason to be concerned about a “bloody summer.”
But it’s not just 2021.
Last year not only brought COVID-19 to the United States, but also a marked increase in murder across the country. Analyzing crime across 34 different cities, researchers found that there were 1,268 more homicides in 2020 compared to 2019 — that’s a 30% increase. In some cities, the murder rate increased a full 50%. You’d think such a dramatic rise in violence across the country would provoke a real response from local policymakers. But you’d be wrong.
It seems whenever local leaders address this disturbing trend in violence, they simply blame it on national issues, as if there is nothing they could do to fix the problem. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms attributed the rise in violence in her city to the “perfect storm” of the pandemic and civil unrest. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Miss., used nearly identical language to discuss alarming increases in homicides in their cities, as did police chiefs in Houston, TX, New Haven, CT, and Oakland, CA.
While observing national crime trends can be informative, this tendency to turn the attention away from individual cities to the country is highly problematic for at least two reasons.
First, by focusing on “national trends,” local leaders can effectively wash their hands of problems in their own jurisdictions. Policymakers can point to overall crime rates or national issues and say, “sure things are worse here, but they’re worse in other places too!” The implication of these types of statements is that while the rise in violent crime is a problem, it’s not their problem. Since their own rates mirror “national trends” there is no need to seriously examine and correct the underlying issues in their communities.
Take, for example, officials across the country blaming the “perfect storm” of the pandemic and social unrest. There is likely some truth to these statements. But by offering these issues as the only causes, however, officials give themselves a pass and conveniently ignore other data. Consider that Chicago’s murder rate has been increasing since before the pandemic, or that Jackson, Miss., saw a record number of homicides in 2018, well before the recent social unrest.
The second reason this national focus is problematic is that it ignores stark differences in violence across communities and cities throughout the country, and in so doing, fails to account for what really matters—where people live. People don’t live in “the nation.” They live in neighborhoods, and neighborhoods differ dramatically. In Louisville, KY, for example, nearly 74% of all homicides between January and April of this year occurred in just three of the city’s eight districts. Three districts had two or fewer murders, and one had no murders at all. Looking at violent crime from a national perspective ignores these differences.
The effects of such violence are long lasting. Even those who don’t endure the loss of a friend or family member may still suffer serious consequences. Consider one journalist who, during his time in Chicago, found a shocking number of similarities between the behaviors of individuals in the city’s southside and behaviors of people in warzones. Research finds that children who grow up in violent neighborhoods have worse educational outcomes than those who don’t. The effects are far reaching and last a lifetime.
When officials respond to crime data, they often suggest blunt, one-size-fits-all policy solutions. They call for federal changes to gun laws or otherwise pass the buck on to Congress to figure it out. But we shouldn’t let our local leaders off the hook. Just as the national murder rate doesn’t tell us what’s happening in local communities, singular policies likewise fail to address the various, complex conditions facing different neighborhoods. Murder trends may be attributable to gang violence, drug markets, or even increases in domestic violence. It’s the job of local officials to determine what’s causing the rise in their communities and act accordingly.
When thinking about the national murder rate, it’s important to remember that those numbers are driven by local data—what’s happening in our own cities and communities. In a similar way, solutions to these problems must come from our own communities. We should start by holding local leaders accountable.
• Abigail R. Hall is an associate professor of Economics at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky and a Young Voices Contributor. She is the co-author of “Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism.”
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