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2016 might have been the second bad year in a row for murder in America’s major cities

A new report looks at crime trends for some of the US’s largest cities. There’s bad news.

The violent crime and murder rates may have gone up this year, particularly in some of the country’s largest cities.

That finding comes from a new preliminary report by the Brennan Center for Justice, which obtained murder data from 26 of the 30 largest cities in America, violent crime data for 25, and overall crime data for 21. The report gives an early indication of where the national crime trends may have headed this year, although it’s possible that the cities Brennan looked at were especially bad while the rest of the country fared better.

Here were the Brennan report’s big findings:

  • Since 2015, the overall crime rate held relatively flat across the largest cities, in large part thanks to big ongoing decreases in property crimes like theft. Brennan projects that overall crime will go up by 0.3 percent.
  • The overall violent crime rate in these cities is poised to increase by 3.3 percent since 2015. Brennan explained that this is “driven by increases in Chicago (17.7 percent increase) and Charlotte (13.4 percent increase).”
  • The 2016 murder rate is projected to increase by 14 percent compared with 2015. About half of the increase in murders, Brennan found, comes from Chicago. But 21 of 26 cities reported some sort of increase. (Still, the violent crime and murder rates for the whole country reached historical lows in 2014, so much of this is an increase from a period of historically little crime.)
  • The overall numbers look similar to Brennan’s 2015 report, which also found an increase in murders in 2015. But there have been some local variations: In 2015, Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, DC, were the big contributors to the murder rise. But this year, Baltimore and Washington, DC, have seen decreases in murders, while Chicago has seen far more murders.

Brennan’s 2015 analysis was accurate enough to predict that the violent crime and murder rates really were going up that year before the FBI released its official 2015 data in September 2016. So these numbers really are cause for concern, even though it’s not fully clear whether this trend will hold and what’s behind it.

Does the Ferguson effect explain the increase?

A Black Lives Matter march in Washington, DC. Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images

Criminologists caution that it’s probably still too early to know why violent crime and murder have been going up in the past couple of years, but they have some early ideas.

One prominent theory is what’s known as the “Ferguson effect” — the impacts of Black Lives Matter protests against police shootings since Michael Brown’s 2014 death in Ferguson, Missouri.

There are essentially two hypothesized versions of the Ferguson effect: One is that Black Lives Matter protests have scared cops from doing the proactive police work necessary to prevent crime, while at the same time criminals have been emboldened because they now know police are backing off from aggressive tactics. The other is that these protests have reinforced communities’ distrust in law enforcement, making it harder to solve and prevent crimes. It’s also possible both of these versions are playing a mixed role.

Conservative columnist Heather Mac Donald has been a major proponent of the first version of this theory. She’s pointed to data showing that after the protests and riots in Baltimore in 2015, murder rates began to climb. And there is some evidence in her favor in the data for this year, with violent crime and murder rates in Chicago rising after protests over the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. (But we’ll need a more rigorous analysis before this connection is made more credible.)

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri St. Louis who studied the 2015 increase in murders, has cautiously argued that the other version of the Ferguson effect is more plausible. He previously told me, “There is good sociological and historical evidence that if people lose confidence in the police to protect them, or if they lack trust in the police because they believe the police are harassing them or behaving unfairly, they do tend to take matters into their own hands. So one tends to see preemptive killings and retaliatory shootings go up.”

The distinction matters for policy. If Mac Donald’s version of the Ferguson effect is right, it vindicates proactive, aggressive policing tactics. If the other version is right, it calls for less aggressive tactics and more community engagement.

Still, there’s reason for caution: No rigorous study so far has definitively backed up either version of the Ferguson effect. And its impact doesn’t seem to last very long: For example, Brennan projected that Baltimore will see its murder rate decline by 6 percent after a massive nearly 56 percent increase in 2015.

Is the increase a temporary blip?

Another possibility, echoed by every criminologist I’ve talked to about this, is that the 2015 and 2016 changes are a short-term fluctuation that won’t become a long-term trend.

We’ve seen short-term fluctuations before. The murder rate went up steadily from 5.5 per 100,000 people in 2004 to 5.6 in 2005 and 5.8 in 2006 — before dropping all the way down to the historical low of 4.4 in 2014.

The same thing could have happened in 2015 and 2016. For whatever reason, maybe even some version of the Ferguson effect, the two years were just particularly bad for murders. But maybe (hopefully) it was just a blip, and the long-term trend of crime decline will continue.

It’s also possible that the murder rate alone gives a distorted view of violent crime. Since the murder rate is generally very low, it’s prone to larger statistical fluctuations. Basically, a change of a few murders translates to a larger percentage change — making changes look larger than if the overall murder rate were higher to begin with. (As one example, New Orleans–based crime analyst Jeff Asher told me that he expects the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, to lead to a massive increase in the murder rate in the city, even though it was just one particularly bad event.)

Is the cause something else altogether?

A Baltimore police car. Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images

Consider this: Criminologists are still debating what caused the roughly 50 percent decrease in violent crime and murders since the 1980s and ’90s. There are many theories, from changes in policing tactics to more incarceration to reductions in lead exposure. But no one knows for certain.

Similarly, experts are beginning to develop all sorts of theories for why there may be an ongoing rise in murder and violent crime rates. Asher, for one, told me it’s possible police are beginning to pull back on tactics and strategies that worked to reduce crime before, perhaps as a result of dwindling resources. University of Chicago criminal justice researcher John Roman argued that the increase in murders in particular may be driven by shooters using higher-caliber weapons — a claim backed by recent reports — while a rise in shootings in Chicago could be driven by a contagion of shootings leading to retaliatory shootings.

But again, all of this needs more study as researchers work through hyper-local trends to tease out a plausible national story. In fact, it’s possible that the ultimate cause is a factor we haven’t even considered yet.

Statistical fluctuations and “we don’t really know yet” aren’t the most satisfying answers. But given that they’re seriously plausible, everyone should probably wait a few years before trying to build a definitive theory around one or two years of bad crime statistics.

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