Spike in Homicides Hits Midsized Cities Hardest

“A recent poll from Morning Consult/Politico found that 78 percent of voters believe that violent crime is a major problem in the United States, and nearly as high a percentage thought that the problem is getting worse,” as noted by Josh Crawford and Abigal Hall of the Pegasus Institute.  Their piece in Real Clear Policy points out that while media attention regarding violent crime and homicide is focused on large cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, “it’s midsize cities in the middle of the country which have seen the largest increases in violent crime.   Murder has exploded in Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Birmingham, for example – but perhaps no city better illustrates this reality than Louisville.”

“For much of its recent history, Louisville has enjoyed relatively low rates of violent crime and homicide. From 1980 to 2015, for example, Louisville averaged just 54 homicides a year. But in 2015, Louisville surpassed 80 homicides for the first time since 1979. In 2016, the city had its then-deadliest year ever, with 117 murders.

Over the next few years, the city observed similar rates of violence. Then things exploded. In 2020, Louisville saw 173 murders. If New York City had Louisville’s 2020 murder rate, it would have seen 2,465 murders instead of the 496 it suffered. In Louisville, 2021 looks even worse: through the first 8 months of the year, there were 23 murders per every 100,000 residents. That puts the city’s murder rate above those of Philadelphia (22.7), Atlanta (21.7), and Chicago (20.5).”

“Some avoid addressing the issue by claiming that “gun violence is up everywhere.” But this claim fundamentally ignores how violence occurs and why it increases. Street violence, broadly, and homicide, specifically, don’t operate like the weather, over which we have no control. To the extent that violence is increasing in many cities across the country, it can be fixed – but fixing it requires an understanding of its causes.

The first problem is gang-related urban violence. Both academic research and government reports clearly show that members of criminal street gangs are disproportionately responsible for violence in American cities. These gangs may be highly structured groups or more loosely connected street groups or “cliques.” According to the National Network for Safe Communities, these individuals typically make up around one-half of one percent of a city’s population but are involved in as much as 70% of its homicide and gun violence.

The second major problem has been the decline in the presence and involvement of law enforcement – due in part to a reduction in the number of cops on the street. Amid early retirements, trouble recruiting new officers, and calls for “defunding the police,” police departments are shrinking. Louisville, for example, is currently 298 officers short.

In addition to shrinking departments, police across the country are engaging in less “proactive policing,” a broad term referring to anything law enforcement does that is not related to a specific call for service. This police pullback leaves a vacuum of power in many of America’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. And where law enforcement leaves vacuums, gangs and street groups have filled them. The surge in street-gang activity has played a major role in the homicide increase across the country.

This has long been true in places like Chicago and Los Angeles, but increasingly it’s the case in cities like Louisville as well. Policymakers would be wise to focus resources – both enforcement and social services – on these groups with the urgency that the problem deserves. Lives depend on it.”