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After decades of decline, the murder rate increased in 2015 and 2016

The murder rate is still nearly half of what it was in 1991, but it may be on the rise.

Chicago police cars. Scott Olson/Getty Images

After decades of declines in the murder rate, 2016 may have been the second bloody year in a row in America.

According to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice, the US murder rate rose by 7.8 percent in 2016 compared with 2015. It’s the second year in a row in which the murder rate increased.

The outlook was even worse in big cities. In the 30 largest US cities, Brennan estimated that the murder rate increased by 14 percent from 2015 to 2016, following an increase of 13.2 percent in 2015. These increases were heavily concentrated: More than half of 2015’s urban murder increase happened in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, DC. And more than 40 percent of 2016’s rise happened in Chicago alone, which had a particularly bad year.

Still, Brennan cautioned, the murder rate remained nearly half of what it was 25 years before: “From 1991 to 2016, the murder rate fell by roughly half, from 9.8 killings per 100,000 to 5.3. With violence at historic lows, modest increases in the murder rate may appear large in percentage terms.”

The overall crime rate also appeared to increase — by less than 1 percent — from 2015 to 2016. And the violent crime rate rose by 6.3 percent in 2016.

Brennan’s report is based on preliminary estimates. The FBI will release full crime data later this year. But Brennan’s report gives us an early peek at what’s likely to come.

Brennan repeatedly emphasized throughout the report that even after the increase, America is still much safer than it was just decades ago. The murder rate increases in 30 large US cities and nationwide also don’t mean that every city in the US saw a rise; New York City, for example, has seen crime drop or hold steady for years. “Today, the crime rate in New York is actually lower than the national crime rate,” Brennan noted.

But after the second year in a row of national increases, the report raises a red flag about what is happening in the US. Could crime be back on the rise? Or are the 2015 and 2016 numbers, like similar increases in 2005 and 2006, just another temporary rise before the crime and murder rates continue their long-term decline? And what could be behind the recent increases?

One theory for the increase: the “Ferguson effect”

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 law enforcement officers from doing the proactive policing 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 theory is that these protests have reinforced communities’ distrust of 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 protests and riots over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, murder rates began to climb. And there was some evidence in her favor in the data for last 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 validated.)

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 that have characterized the US’s “tough on crime” policy era. 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 may not last long: For example, Brennan projected that Baltimore’s murder rate declined in 2016 after a massive nearly 56 percent increase in 2015.

The increase in crime rates may be temporary

Another possibility, echoed by every criminologist I’ve talked to about this, is that the 2015 and 2016 changes are short-term fluctuations 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 and crime. 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 large statistical fluctuations. As one example, New Orleans–based crime analyst Jeff Asher told me he expects the 2016 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in which 50 died, to lead to a massive increase in the murder rate in the city, even though it was just one particularly bad event.

The increase may be caused by something we don’t know about

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 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 the ultimate cause is a factor we haven’t even considered yet. Or there may not be a single national driver for the increases at all; instead, the increases may be driven by disparate local issues that vary from city to city.

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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