The reports have been eye-catching. A double homicide in Washington, D.C. last week brought the total number of murders in the city to the same level as all of last year. Indeed, as The New York Times reported Monday, dozens of cities across the country have seen increases in violent crime this year, including Los Angeles, which has reported a 20% jump.
It is little wonder, then, that citizens and law enforcement alike are wondering if we are sliding back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, facing a homicide epidemic like the one that ravaged poor inner-city neighborhoods.
Is the crime decline party over? And does the uptick in homicides reported this year foretell a trend that will engulf cities across the country?
Unfortunately, social scientists, myself included, seem to have misplaced our trusty crystal balls and are so far unable to provide a definitive answer. Because the reality is that right now, we just don’t have the data that we need to provide a firm answer.
Even though it is too early to say with certainty, there are a number of reasons why it’s likely too early to jump to the conclusion that the “surge” in homicides won’t be eased or can’t be reversed.
The silver lining to what seems now like an unimaginable level of gun violence about 25 years ago is that that earlier crisis also underscored what can be done with data-driven intervention. Pioneered in Boston, the “problem-solving approach” to understanding local patterns of violence resulted in partnerships with stakeholders at the local, state and federal levels.
The best examples involved community leaders, clergy members, police, probation officers and prosecutors voicing a consistent message of zero tolerance for gun violence.
The truth is that although much of the violence was concentrated in poor, minority, inner city neighborhoods and involved members of street gangs, intervention was never about declaring war on gangs or a particular demographic group.
Instead, the message was clearly focused on gun violence and enticing a change in behavior by offering both carrots and sticks — sticks to sanction those that continued to participate in gun violence, and carrots to encourage alternatives for those wanting to abandon the gun-toting life.
For those cities not already doing so, then it is time they got ahead of the recent trends in violence and revisit the kind of interventions that proved so effective in the past. Doing so would also not just help with the immediate issue of rising crime levels and gun violence, but would also offer an opportunity in the “post-Ferguson” world to bring together the community and police to help repair what appears to be growing distrust between both parties.
More specifically, the collection and utilization of data has generally resulted in more effective policing, and can be used to help stem the current rises in violent crime.
Larger police departments routinely use data-driven “predictive policing” analytics to allocate resources to emerging crime “hot spots.” Similarly, social network analysis is being employed to better understand relationships among individuals or between rival gang factions, while police are increasingly able to quickly find out about “minor” incidents between individuals from human intelligence sources and monitor or even intervene in a situation before it explodes into lethal violence.
It is because of such data that Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, for example, can determine that the very recent surge in violence is concentrated in a particular part of town and that it involves a long-standing feud between particular gangs, and react accordingly.
So long as the community continues to be invited to the table in South Los Angeles, the latest surge in violence should just be a one-time blip.
A final reason for optimism is that from the limited data available, a key element that would be cause for particular concern seems to be missing — there doesn’t seem to be what social scientists term an “agent of contagion” to the recent spate of violence.
During the previous epidemic of violence, open-air crack cocaine markets proliferated; cities that had little or no history with urban street gangs now found themselves dealing with young people identifying themselves as “Crips” or “Bloods;” and every kid, it seemed, had access to a firearm.
So while 25 years ago we were dealing with a youth-gun homicide epidemic, this time it’s not clear that young people are the most susceptible population. In fact, a quick look at the homicide report maintained by the Los Angeles Times for the months of July and August shows that while African-American and Latino males remain overrepresented among victims, the average age of the victims is 37.
All this means that we probably have a better idea of what is not leading to the surges in violence in particular communities than what has sparked this uptick. With that in mind, we must continue to gather and analyze the data. It could be, for example, that a growing number of prisoners being released, and concentrated reentry into communities that lack the resources to reintegrate them into society, is one factor.
But whatever is driving this latest rise, 2015 looks very different from two or three decades ago — we now have more information to understand what is driving these surges, and our communities and law enforcement agencies are much better placed to get out in front of this problem and prevent full-blown crisis.
As troubling as the recent numbers are, we are unlikely to ever repeat the “youth-gun homicide epidemic” of a generation ago.