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After decades of decline, the murder rate in large US cities rose over the past 2 years

A new report provides the latest numbers. They’re not good.

A Chicago crime scene. Scott Olson/Getty Images

America’s murder rate climbed for the second year in a row in 2016 — and the reason for the surge is still unclear.

A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice analyzed crime rates from the 30 largest US cities. Brennan concluded that although the overall crime rate increased by about 0.9 percent in these cities, the homicide rate rose by a whopping 13.1 percent. More than half of the increase is explained by a continued rise in murders in Chicago, the nation’s third largest city. (One caveat: A few cities were left out in some of the estimates due to a lack of available data.)

This would make 2016 the second year in a row when the murder rate rose in the 30 largest US cities. In 2015, more than half the increase was attributable to Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, DC.

Brennan estimated that the violent crime rate in the 30 largest US cities also increased by 4.2 percent, in large part due to spikes in violent crime in Baltimore and Chicago.

The increases come after decades of drops in the crime and murder rates. A previous report from Brennan, which used preliminary data from before the new analysis, found that the overall murder rate across the entire US rose by 7.8 percent between 2015 and 2016. At that estimate, the murder rate would still be at nearly half of what it was 25 years before — but it’s a sizable increase nonetheless.

Brennan’s reports are based on early estimates. The FBI will release full 2016 crime data for the whole US later this year. But Brennan’s reports give us an early peek at what’s likely to come.

Throughout these reports, Brennan has repeatedly emphasized 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 big 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 previously 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 impact 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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