AAFTER THE sweet tea was poured, but before the tomato soup arrived, in the middle of a crowded restaurant, Bill White lifted the tail of his shirt to reveal the rubberized grip of a .38 revolver. “Everyone has one these days,” he says. Over lunch, he and two other residents of Buckhead, the affluent northern part of Atlanta, swap stories: packs of cars blocking intersections for illegal street racing, potential thieves cashing in on houses, overly frightened neighbors to leave their homes. Lenox Square, an upscale shopping center, installed metal detectors after a series of shootings. Mr White is the head of fundraising for the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, a group of residents who have organized themselves to push for the independence of Buckhead from Atlanta, motivated, he explains, by three factors: “crime, crime and felony”.
As of May 16, murders were up 59% in Atlanta compared to the same period in 2020. Rape, aggravated assault and theft of and car thefts are also well above 2020 levels. Nor is Atlanta an issue. Nationally, the spike in murders that began in 2020 – according to data from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, homicides in U.S. cities rose 33% from 2019 to 2020 – shows no signs of slowing down. This is a problem first, of course, for people living in neighborhoods where much of this violence takes place. But it also poses a problem for supporters of criminal justice reform, who made great strides in the 2010s, when violent crime was on the decline. Convincing people to support lighter sentences and reduce their reliance on the police when murders increase can be more difficult.
The reasons why murder rates are on the rise nationwide remain unclear. In fact, criminologists still wonder why crime declined in the 1990s and 2000s. The pandemic has closed schools and other institutions, leaving young people idle and anxious. Police officers who might otherwise have been deployed in high crime neighborhoods or on a fact-finding mission were tasked with responding to the protests. Arms sales have skyrocketed, and many have faced financial hardships and other stresses. But violent crime rates were rising, albeit more slowly than in the past 14 months, even before the start of the covid-19 epidemic, starting in 2014.
Whatever the reason, “homicides can be tacky,” says John Pfaff of Fordham University in New York. “A shooting in March can lead to a subsequent shooting in July, when retaliation occurs. In other words, even if the pandemic is partly responsible for the spike in homicides, any post-pandemic decline may well be gradual.
As a result, the crime now has a political significance that it hasn’t had for years. A poll released last month showed crime to be the second biggest issue (behind covid-19) for New York Democrats, who will choose a mayoral candidate in a June 22 primary. Eric Adams, a former police officer who recently championed the use of stop-and-search tactics and made public safety the center of his campaign, is leading in some polls. Jenny Durkan, mayor of Seattle, has been criticized by both right and left for her handling of the city’s police-less “autonomous zone” and the tactics the police use against protesters; she will not seek another mandate. Chesa Boudin, San Francisco district attorney, faces a recall campaign, motivated by the perception that he is too lenient on crime. Crime has become central in the race to succeed Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, who also unexpectedly refused to run for a second term.
But before she leaves her post, she plans to hire another 250 police officers. Other cities have taken a similar approach. Minneapolis, where a majority of city council voted last year to fund and dissolve the police department, will spend $ 6.4 million to hire new officers. While chairman of Baltimore City Council, Brandon Scott championed a measure to cut the police department’s budget by $ 22.4 million; since taking office last December as mayor, he has offered to increase it by $ 28 million. Oakland will soon return most of the $ 29 million it cut from the police budget last year.
Such reversals speak more to the political than the budgetary costs of criminal justice reform. But that does not mean that reform is doomed or that all voters will reject all reform candidates. Last month, Tishaura Jones was elected mayor of St Louis on a platform that included reducing the use of police and closing one of the city’s prisons. In a primary race on May 18, Larry Krasner, the district attorney on the Philadelphia crusade, defeated his police union-backed opponent. On the same day, Ed Gainey, who was running on a Reform platform, defeated Bill Peduto in a primary election. He is set to become the first black mayor of Pittsburgh.
Yet blame for violence is an effective club that conservative state-level politicians can wield against liberal cities. Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, is putting the crime of Atlanta at the heart of his re-election campaign, in order to better win back Republicans hesitant with Trump in the city’s suburbs. Florida has passed a law that allows the governor and his cabinet to reverse any changes to city police budgets they deem unwise. Other states have proposed (and Texas has passed) measures cutting funds to cities that slash police budgets. Unlike states, which the Tenth Amendment protects against federal excesses, cities are subsidiary creations of the state and have no legal protection against these kinds of preventative measures.
Reformers will have to change the way they present their ideas. They can’t just make a moral case. Much of the impetus that has led conservative and liberal states to reduce their prison populations in recent years has been to save money. And, as Pfaff notes, homicides are on the rise across the country, so if rising violent crime rates challenge reform in liberal cities, they must also challenge the status quo in areas. more conservative who have not pursued reform.
“The rise in violence only makes anything about these debates about how to reform the police and deal with police violence more difficult,” says Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at Princeton University. “There is a knee-jerk response because we’ve been so dependent on the police and prisons as the institutions we turn to to deal with violence. When faced with a choice between more or less policing, those afraid of violent crime will rarely choose less.
In fact the choice is not binary. Police play a crucial role in tackling crime, and in the short term cities may require a stronger police presence than some reformers would like. They do not play the only role, however. There is a wealth of evidence that other institutions – anti-violence nonprofits, drug treatment programs, summer jobs for young people – are also helping. Politicians who want to reduce violent crime in their cities and states should remember this, just as activists should remember that reform is harder to sell when people feel insecure. Because, as murders usually increase in the summer, when people are on the streets until late, security is unlikely to return anytime soon.■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Reality bites”