During his first address to Congress, President Donald Trump on Tuesday promised to “break the cycle of violence” that plagues America’s cities — a line he’s used many times, but never with all the context it needs.
“The murder rate in 2015 experienced its largest single-year increase in nearly half a century. In Chicago, more than 4,000 people were shot last year alone — and the murder rate so far this year has been even higher,” Trump argued. “This is not acceptable in our society. Every American child should be able to grow up in a safe community, to attend a great school, and to have access to a high-paying job.”
It’s true that the murder rate rose in 2015 (the last year of data available), but the US has actually made great strides in breaking the cycle of violence over the past few decades. Even in 2015, the murder rate was still half of what it was at its 1990s peak in 1992, according to FBI data. So not all is doom and gloom.
But there are strides the US can make to bring the murder rate even lower. It’s just not the “tough on crime” approach Trump advocated for on the campaign trail, but a new approach to criminal justice that heals longstanding distrust between the police and the communities most plagued by crime and murder.
The root of the cycle of violence is often distrust in police
By Trump’s telling, the problem in our inner cities is largely the result of lack of respect toward the police and policies that shackle cops from taking an aggressive approach to cracking down on crime. Asked by Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly how he would solve Chicago’s murder crisis, Trump once frankly responded, “By being very much tougher than they are right now.”
Criminologists argue, however, that the problem is instead rooted in a lack of trust in police — one that has come from decades of overly aggressive and “tough” policies targeted at small crimes like drugs, traffic violations, and loitering, while paying little attention to more serious crimes like murder and shootings. (For example, David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told Mother Jones that in minority communities, clearance rates for murders and nonfatal shootings can get “pathetically low. They can easily fall down to single digits.”)
Obviously, there are other causes of violent crime, like socioeconomic conditions, alcohol and drug use, and access to guns. But distrust in police can help explain why some cities, like Chicago, have seen upticks in violence following high-profile police shootings or other incidents of potential police abuse.
“When communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community,” Kennedy previously told me. “Then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence.”
The empirical research backs this up. A 2016 study, from sociologists Matthew Desmond of Harvard, Andrew Papachristos of Yale, and David Kirk of Oxford, looked at the effects of 911 calls in Milwaukee after incidents of police brutality hit the news.
They found that after the 2004 police beating of Frank Jude, 17 percent (22,200) fewer 911 calls were made in the following year compared with the number of calls that would have been made had the Jude beating never happened. More than half of the effect came from fewer calls in black neighborhoods. And the effect persisted for more than a year, even after the officers involved in the beating were punished. Researchers found similar impacts on local 911 calls after other high-profile incidents of police violence.
But crime still happened in these neighborhoods. Indeed, as 911 calls dropped, researchers also found a rise in homicides. They note that “the spring and summer that followed Jude’s story were the deadliest in the seven years observed in our study.”
That suggests that people were simply dealing with crime themselves. And although the researchers couldn’t definitively prove it, that might mean civilians took to their own — sometimes violent — means to protect themselves when they couldn’t trust police to stop crime and violence.
“An important implication of this finding is that publicized cases of police violence not only threaten the legitimacy and reputation of law enforcement,” the researchers write, “they also — by driving down 911 calls — thwart the suppression of law breaking, obstruct the application of justice, and ultimately make cities as a whole, and the black community in particular, less safe.”
This phenomenon — an example of what’s known as “legal cynicism” — shouldn’t be too surprising. As journalist Jill Leovy wrote in her groundbreaking book Ghettoside, “Take a bunch of teenage boys from the whitest, safest suburb in America and plunk them down in a place where their friends are murdered and they are constantly attacked and threatened. Signal that no one cares, and fail to solve murders. Limit their options for escape. Then see what happens.”
How to repair trust in the police and bring down crime
If there’s one way to describe what’s gone wrong with modern American policing, it’s that policing is typically approached with a scattershot force akin to a shotgun when a precise focus akin to a scalpel is a much better fit.
Since the 1980s led to a militarized, “tough on crime” approach to policing, the tactics have usually involved sweeping approaches that target entire populations — “stop and frisk” of entire neighborhoods, widespread raids, and so on. The research suggests that such tactics were largely ineffective for stopping crime, while leading to more distrust in communities that by and large felt over-policed.
The big problem for the “tough” strategies: Violence is very concentrated in US cities. As Harvard criminologist Thomas Abt previously wrote for Vox, “In most cities across the nation, 3 to 5 percent of city blocks account for 50 to 75 percent of all shootings and killings, with 1 percent of a city’s population responsible for 50 to 60 percent of all homicides.”
That’s why criminal justice experts say the best approach is one that is targeted — going after “hot spots” with a sharp focus on certain blocks, streets, and even people. To this end, experts have developed policing strategies known as “hot-spot policing” and “focused deterrence” to do just what they’re asking.
“If you get very specific, you are better at fighting crime and reducing violence,” Abt previously told me. “But you also improve legitimacy by showing the community that you're not occupying them like a military, but that you're serving them by trying to help them address a small number of people in places that really are hurting the community.”
Focused deterrence has particular promise behind it. Through this strategy, police work with the community to target specific individuals at a very high risk of violence. They directly and clearly signal to these individuals that they have two options: quit doing bad things and the community will offer resources, such as job training, to help you, or you absolutely will be arrested. In doing this, the police and community can deter individuals responsible for most of the crime in their city from acting out, and maybe even help these individuals lead more productive lives.
The research says it works: Study after study backs up focused deterrence, and the method got much of the credit for the “Boston miracle” that saw the city’s violent crime rate drop by 79 percent in the 1990s.
The federal government, if Trump were willing to, could directly encourage this style of policing. “I would like to see the feds help the locals with targeted enforcement, funding for intervention and prevention, and also to help them get smart on crime using evidence and data,” Abt said. “We need to help locals focus on those people, places, and behaviors that cause the great majority of crime and violence in American cities.”
Unfortunately, federal spending tends to go to antiquated styles of policing, including dragnet programs that finance broad, unfocused crackdowns on low-level offenses and vague “community policing” mandates with little oversight. Consider, for example, that Chicago has been receiving federal aid for years to keep more cops on the force for “community policing,” yet a Justice Department report just uncovered sweeping abuses that created a climate of distrust between the community and police.
Federal programs could be tweaked to remedy this. Not only could they encourage more evidence-based types of policing, but they could offer a sustained investment over many years instead of the drop-in-drop-out approach of federal law enforcement surges and loosely funded pilot programs.
Trump, however, has often called for the opposite approach, warning that he’ll “send in the Feds” into Chicago and arguing that police need to be “very much tougher than they are right now.” But the research suggests that such an approach would not only be ineffective in stopping crime but would likely make matters much worse by fostering even more distrust in the police.