On the 2020 Murder Spike and What This Means for 2021

Originally published in The Daily Beast on June 9, 2021
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As millions of vaccinated people emerge from lockdown, returning to shops, bars and restaurants, American life is kicking back into high gear. And in the United States in 2021, that means elected officials and crime experts are bracing for an unusually deadly summer marked by wanton gun violence. 

But the reasons for and locations of the likely surge in shootings, a trend that began before but has accelerated during the pandemic, are more complicated than the effects of lockdowns or traditional seasonal shifts in urban crime patterns. Instead, experts say, everything from a flood of fentanyl and open-air drug markets to surging gun violence in rural areas and small towns could make for a remarkable season of tragedy.


Homicides generally spike every summer, but 2020 saw a spike of shootings and murders that far outpaced even the typical surge. One analysis from the Council on Criminal Justice, a research and policy group, found a 30 percent increase in homicides across 34 U.S. cities compared to 2019, and Jeff Asher, an independent crime analyst, found murder up 37 percent across 57 localities. An analysis of gun-violence data by Everytown, a gun-control advocacy group, suggests 2020 had the highest rate of gun deaths in the last 20 years.

Other types of crime, including rape and robberies, seemed to drop in 2020, likely due in part to stay-at-home orders. But homicides and shootings were already increasing between 2014 and 2019, meaning even a return to 2019 murder levels wouldn’t indicate crime is on a good track. 

“After 2014, shootings went up, and they continued to go up, and they accelerated wildly last year,” said John Roman, a crime researcher with the University of Chicago. “Why is that? We don’t know, but the thinking that it’s suddenly going to stop strikes me as wishful thinking. The best [crime] predictor of what happens this year is what happened last year.”

One challenge in interpreting crime data in general—and making sense of the 2020 surge in particular—is the slow pace at which it is published. National news outlets have run many stories highlighting the murder wave in large U.S. cities, painting a picture of spikes that are unique to those generally liberal, urban areas. “The U.S. saw significant crime rise across major cities in 2020 [a]nd it’s not letting up,” read one CNN headline from April typifying the genre. 

But one reason reporters tend to focus on crime in large cities is because they have the capacity to publish more frequent crime statistics, whereas other smaller towns and rural areas don’t or choose not to. 

The grim reality is that while murder spikes were most pronounced in large cities, shootings and homicides were up significantly across all U.S jurisdictions last year. Preliminary FBI data from nearly 13,000 law enforcement agencies found cities with 25,000 people or less saw 25 percent increases in murder last year, and mid-sized cities had increases ranging from 24-31 percent. Final FBI data will be published in September.

“Even in the suburbs and rural areas it was up 15 percent,” Asher told The Daily Beast. “Crime fell last year in America, but murder rose historically.”

So what are the most plausible explanations? One likely factor is a jump in the number of guns in America, which somehow has gotten even more out of hand. FBI data suggests nearly 40 million guns were sold last year, a 40 percent increase from 2019. New data from Northeastern University and the Harvard Injury Control Research Center found roughly 20 percent of those who bought guns last year were first-time gun owners. 

The research also found 39 percent of American households now own guns, up from 32 percent five years earlier. 

“Gun crime usually occurs between people who know each other, and if you talk to cops, they’ll tell you that there are more than the traditional players who are now carrying guns,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.

The research literature is clear, added Daniel Webster, director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University: more guns mean more gun deaths. Whether that means the huge increase in 2020 gun sales is the best explanation for spiking gun violence is less clear. 

“Honestly we don’t know, though we should know soon,” Webster said, pointing to the forthcoming data from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms (ATF), which traces crime to specific guns. “Once that data comes out, we’ll be able to see in a fairly direct way: were those gun sales used quickly in crime, or is this just a coincidence.”

Webster said his main concern going forward is that more guns, combined with more guns in public places because states are making it easier to carry firearms legally, coupled with more illegally-carried guns due to a loosely regulated secondary gun market, all increase the chance for violence. “As a public health epidemiologist, basically what that translates to is more exposure to guns, more people in more places with firearms, and even though the vast majority are going to be safe and not harm themselves or others, some portion will,” he said.

The pandemic itself stands as another likely explanation for the increase in shootings and homicides. And, indeed, this overlaps with the increase in gun sales, as purchases spiked in the early months of the pandemic, even before police-violence protests stoked fears of unrest. The pandemic weakened community institutions that experts say typically help deter crime. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist and criminologist at Princeton, has said the corresponding disconnection from places like schools and pools and rec centers all help increase the conditions that may lead to violent behavior.

Roman at the University of Chicago, too, has argued that the disruption of routine activities for large numbers of young men in poor areas likely contributed to violence with other young men in similar situations. But he told The Daily Beast that the infusion of federal stimulus funds to state and local governments should help support those institutions and individuals who help keep people from committing crime and being victim to crime, including therapists and social workers, and libraries and pools.

A less plausible explanation for the rise in homicides, though one that gets quite a bit of airtime on cable news, is the so-called de-policing theory, which suggests police have scaled back their work in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. Dating to at least 2014, the suggestion has been that police are either doing their jobs less well because of low morale from being criticized, or simply being less proactive in the field out of fear of discipline or even criminal punishment. Some pundits have pointed to cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, which saw stark increases in homicides last year, as evidence that activist pressure to “defund the police” is driving the murder surge.

But even some law-enforcement leaders acknowledge the weaknesses of the defund theory.

Laura Cooper, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which represents police executives in the U.S. and Canada, told The Daily Beast that the defund the police movement “has not been pervasive” across their membership cities. And, she noted, “in a lot of places, they’ve actually increased police budgets.” Cooper added their data shows violent crime has increased, even in the first quarter of 2021, regardless of whether cities increased or decreased their police budgets. 

That’s not to say tensions with the police have had no relationship to crime levels. If police are perceived as illegitimate, then community members tend to be less likely to cooperate or assist cops in investigations. “If you ask police chiefs what will make a difference, they will tell you that the most important thing is regaining public trust with the community,” said Wexler. “It sounds sort of fuzzy, but it’s not.”


One likely explanation for 2020 gun violence that gets less airtime is the opioid crisis and the corresponding explosion of open-air drug markets. Preliminary CDC data suggests more than 87,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, a 29 percent increase from 2019. Black Americans were disproportionately affected, and the drug overdoses were driven largely by fentanyl and other opioids.

Roman said the fentanyl crisis could help explain some of the geographic spillover in shootings and homicides we’re seeing. “Open-air drug markets are the ultimate recipe for violence,” he said. “You have dealers fighting over customers, customers fighting with dealers, wholesale networks on top of that competing for market share. New beefs, turf wars, gangs.”

Roman thinks one reason politicians focus less on opioids is because it’s just a massive problem that defies demographic realities, and has no obvious solution. “But it’s pretty myopic,” he said. “We have this huge [opioid] problem we all know about it. And we’ve decided it isn’t related to this other murder problem that takes place in the exact same space.”

Webster of Johns Hopkins agrees the role of drugs and illegal drug markets is “an under-examined” factor. 

“The increase that we’re seeing in overdose deaths really is a signal that obviously drug markets are very active places,” he said. “So I actually suspect that there is a connection, though what we do about is a far more challenging question.” Webster believes drug markets are a less-studied factor because they’re just harder to measure, and “we get too comfortable” with other explanations, like policing and anger over it. 

The first few months of 2021 have shown few signs of improvement in terms of shootings and homicides. One analysis from Asher of 37 cities suggested murders were up 18 percent over the same period last year, and gun sales have continued apace

As the public and elected officials grapple with these and forthcoming crime statistics, there will be a familiar pressure to respond by increasing police budgets, even though policing is more of an indirect response to violence. Indeed, in the New York City mayoral race, three leading candidates have all backed more resources for cops even as rivals call for the NYPD to be defunded. 

But if spending more on police can have a marginal benefit in crime reduction, as the country learned from its largest protest wave in history, it can also help provoke backlash and long-term community harm. 

“I think the story is pretty simple and we make it pretty complicated,” said Roman. “The reason you get a gun is because you’re afraid of someone using that gun against you. What we can do is change how fearful people are of other people with guns. That’s really the only way out. It’s the difficult path, and it’s not clear how much of that runs through traditional policing.” 

Baltimore Is Bracing for the Freddie Gray Trials After a Deadly Summer

Originally published in VICE on September 3rd, 2015.
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On Wednesday, a local circuit court judge denied motions to drop the charges against the six officers indicted in the April death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, and declined to recuse State Attorney Marilyn Mosby from trying the case.

Defense attorneys argue Mosby acted inappropriately when she dramatically announced criminal charges on May 1, but Judge Barry Williams dismissed that argument. He also ruled that each officer should be tried separately.

Next week, another hearing is scheduled to determine whether the trials—set for mid-October—will take place in Baltimore or in another jurisdiction.

The court proceedings come at a fraught time for Charm City. Nationally, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to flex its muscles. Activists held their first national conference in July, have been successfully pressuring presidential candidates to speak more directly about criminal justice reform, and just last week, the Democratic National Convention passed a unanimous resolution in support of the movement.

Locally, Baltimore activists have also continued to organize themselves since the Freddie Gray protests ended in the spring.

Amidst all this, the city has seen sharp increases in homicides over the past several months; 215 had been killed by the end of August, up from 138 at the same time in 2014. Forty-five people were murdered in July alone, the bloodiest month the city has seen since August 1972. Concerns about violence and unrest threaten to derail political momentum around criminal justice reform.

In the days leading up to Wednesday’s hearing, the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) cancelled officer leave in order to ensure that as many police officers as possible would be present throughout the day. Some police showed up in uniform, and others dressed in plainclothes to work undercover. Activist Kwame Rose was arrested in the morning,and one officer suffered minor injuries while assisting with the arrest, but by and large the demonstrations were relatively calm. Baltimore native DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, both prominent figures within the national Black Lives Matter movement, attended the demonstration as well.

Speaking at an afternoon press conference, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said demonstrators were “peaceful and respectful and an example of democracy in action.”

Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City Police Officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says he expects the community protests to remain fairly calm in September, but that “the real shit is going to hit the fan” when the court issues its final verdicts for the officers. Charges range from second-degree assault—a misdemeanor—to the rather unusual charge of second-degree depraved heart murder. Moskos does not expect that the cops will be found guilty.

Though the community response is likely to escalate following the October trials, activists say they plan to ramp up protests relatively soon. Duane “Shorty” Davis, an activist with Baltimore BLOC, a local grassroots organization, told the Baltimore Sunthat they’re encouraging people to engage in nonviolent acts of civil disobedience over the next two weeks, particularly in the wealthier and whiter parts of town. “We’re not just going to go in the black community and wave our hands. We’re going to the white communities,” he told the paper.

City politics also remain chaotic. Mosby, who has been cleared to continue working on the Freddie Gray case, will be campaigning and fundraising for her own re-election at the same time. Her husband, Councilman Nick J. Mosby, has also announced that he is “seriously considering” a run for mayor. And in July, Rawlings-Blake fired the city’s police commissioner, Anthony Batts—citing the rising city violence. “We need a change. This was not an easy decision, but it is one that is in the best interest of the people of Baltimore,” she said at the time. The interim police commissioner, Kevin Davis, has been significantly reorganizing the police department over the past two months.

Dayvon Love, the co-founder of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, an organization that advocates for the interests of black people in Baltimore, tells VICE that he anticipates “a plethora of politicians and organizations” will try and use the Freddie Gray trials as a way to advance their own personal careers. “So that sucks,” he says. In the meantime, his group will continue to push for reforms to the police union contract, which they were doing well before Gray’s death. Specifically they have been focusing on changing the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, (LEOBR), which they see as a significant barrier to transparency and accountability. Other groups, including the NAACP and the ACLU of Maryland, have rallied for similar changes.

The police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, strongly opposes changes to LEOBR and worked hard to fight proposed reforms this past legislative season.

In the face of all the political maneuvering, the city’s activists will be waiting on the verdicts to determine whether justice has been served in a case being watched closely by reformers around the country.

The Growing Movement to Restore Voting Rights to Former Felons

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 7th 2015.
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Rachel M. cohen

SEIU 1199 

Rachel M. Cohen

       

On August 6, the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, dozens of Baltimore ex-felons rallied and marched alongside community members to protest their disenfranchisement. In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill which would have granted ex-felons the right to vote when they return home from prison, rather than making them wait until after their probation and parole sentences have been completed (some sentences can last for decades). Holding up signs that read, “We Want Taxation with Representation!” and “End the New Jim Crow!” protestors made clear that they understand the racial implications of the status quo. Had Hogan signed the bill into law, 40,000 more Maryland residents—a majority of them black Baltimoreans—would have been able to cast a ballot in the next election. “Override! Override! The veto! The veto!” protestors shouted together as they marched down the street.

The crowd, well over 100 people, eventually gathered around a statue of Thurgood Marshall, not far from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. “We picked that spot because he’s one of the greatest symbols of justice and fairness,” explained Perry Hopkins, an ex-felon who now works as an organizer with Communities United, the social justice group that planned Thursday’s rally. Fifty-four-year-old Hopkins has never voted.

While Baltimore has made national headlines this year for its police brutality scandals and its spiking murder count, the gathered crowd recognized that these issues cannot be separated from the societal exclusion African-Americans experience every day.

One woman who came to the rally was Robinette Barmer, who has had two children and one grandchild locked up in jail. Barmer has been fighting for ex-felon voting rights all year, and traveled to Annapolis last spring to push for the bill’s passage. “I try to tell ex-cons that their voices do still matter,” she said.

Greg Carpenter, a 62-year-old black man who served 20 years in prison for an armed robbery, also has a 20-year parole sentence. Although Carpenter has been out of jail for 12 years now, he worries he won’t ever get to vote again in his lifetime.

Governor Hogan said that requiring ex-felons to finish their parole and probation sentences before voting “achieves the proper balance” between repaying one’s obligations to society and restoring citizens’ rights. Ex-felons point out that they are both working and paying taxes within their communities, and thus should also have the right to vote.

Social science research suggests that removing voting restrictions would provide positive benefits to both ex-offenders and society at large. The American Probation and Parole Association also says there is no credible evidence to suggest that disenfranchising people who have returned home from prison serves any legitimate law enforcement purpose.

According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, there are roughly 5.85 million disenfranchised American citizens with felony convictions, and 2.2 million of them are black. That’s one out of every 13 African-Americans.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to end discriminatory voting barriers but the courts have disagreed on whether the VRA should apply to felon disenfranchisement laws. Maryland activists aren’t waiting around for the courts, though. At Thursday’s rally, organizers prepped the crowd for next year’s legislative season where they hope to push for an override. “We need you to show up and come out with us to Annapolis,” said Nicole Hanson, an ex-offender who works with Out4Justice, a group that politically mobilizes ex-offenders. “There’s only 90 days of [the legislative] session, so we’ll need you to make some sacrifices.”

Eighteen states considered loosening ex-felon voting restrictions this year, up from 13 states in 2014. But passing legislation, as Maryland activists witnessed first hand, is difficult. Only one state—Wyoming—ended up successfully loosening its restrictions.

Still, there has been demonstrable progress. The Sentencing Project estimates that nearly 800,000 citizens have regained the right to vote through voting reforms enacted between 1997 and 2010. Last month, President Obama even said that, “If folks have served their time, and they’ve reentered society, they should be able to vote.”

“This is a very peaceful rally, but this issue is personal,” Hopkins said in an interview. “We’re going to flip power, and we’re going to empower. We’re going to show the governor who’s the boss. We’re the boss! We’re the people.”

Rachel M. Cohen

Perry Hopkins at the podium