Violent crime up second year in a row

This isn’t good news.

It’s not “carnage,” and it’s not a reason to panic or adopt cruel, stupid policies, but it really isn’t good news.

Yes, year-to-year homicide rates are statistically noisy, especially at the city level, because homicide is a relatively rare event. But an increase of roughly 20% over two years isn’t just statistical noise. And though there are indeed dramatic increases for identifiable local reasons in places such as Chicago, that’s not what’s driving this train: the 2016 increase showed up in small tows as well as big cities. [Update: Robert VerBruggen makes a key observation: white-on-white homicide rose more in percentage terms than black-on-black homicide.]

But the real reason to be concerned isn’t that homicide has gone up for two years in a row; it’s that it was flat in the two previous years, pretty clearly breaking the 20-year downtrend starting in 1994. Yes, even after two bad years, we’re much better off than we used to be. But even at 5 homicides per 100,000 – about half the 1994 rate – our current rate is three times the Canadian rate, five times the UK rate, and ten times the Norwegian rate. That’s nothing to write home about. Getting the homicide rate moving back down ought to count as an important national goal.

But how?

Better policing clearly matters. New York and L.A. homicides are still trending down; New York in particular is having a spectacularly good year, after deciding three years ago to radically cut back on stop-question-frisk. (If you still think more incarceration is what we need, note that NYC incarceration rates – the Rikers population plus the people we send upstate) are down about 40% from their peak.) Watching one of the NYPD’s periodic CompStat meetings, with police leadership reviewing every recent homicide in the target precinct and asking “What could we have done to prevent that one?” gives you a sense of what “Black lives matter” means as a strategy rather than a hashtag.

But better policing isn’t something Amazon Prime will deliver in two days; it’s the product of years, or even decades, of hard and not-very-politically-rewarding work. And better policing means – not only for reasons of justice but on a purely operational level – lawful, respectful policing that maintains its perceived legitimacy in high-crime neighborhoods. The National Network for Safe Communities has been doing the hard work of forging alliances between police management and community leadership around effective violence-reduction strategies for those neighborhoods; listen to NNSC and not Jeff Sessions if you’re interested in doing something about violence rather than using it as a political weapon. (Videotapes of the NNSC annual conference at the link.)

Yes, the “Ferguson effect” – increased homicide as a result of both decreased police activity and decreased community cooperation with the police after a well-publicized fatal police shooting of a civilian – is probably real, and a significant contributor to upsurges in Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis. You’re welcome to blame Black Lives Matter activists if that makes you feel better, or to urge the people using that slogan to dial back the anti-police rhetoric if you think you have any influence.

But if there’s a real Ferguson effect, that’s also a good reason to change police training and tactics to reduce the number of civilians killed by officers. No one has a good count of those events – which itself suggests that departments are less than fully focused on keeping those numbers down – but estimates seem to center on 1000-1200 per year. The comparable figure for Germany is nine. No, that’s not a misprint for “ninety”: German cops kill about nine civilians per year. Yes, U.S. civilians are more violent and better-armed, and of course the German population is only about a quarter of ours, but still and all there doesn’t seem to be any good reason our rate of police killings of civilians should be 25 times the German rate. In particular, Frank Zimring has found, in studying the converse problem of cops killed by civilians, that 96% of those deaths involve firearms, strongly suggesting that shooting unarmed civilians, or those armed only with knives or clubs, is not really essential to protecting police.

Of course there are lots of ways of reducing homicide that don’t involve policing: some inside the criminal justice system, others (early-childhood programs, lead removal) outside it. But most of those take time.

If you’d like to reduce the homicide rate for next year, you have precisely one proven option: raising alcohol taxes. More than half of all homicides involve alcohol, on one side or both, and higher taxes demonstrably cut back on heavy drinking. Phil Cook estimates that a 10% increase in the price of alcohol – which would result from doubling the current federal alcohol tax of about 10 cents per drink – would cut back on violent crime by about 3%. The statistical-noise problem makes it harder to estimate the effect on homicide using Cook’s studies of state-level tax changes, but there’s no good reason to think homicide is more or less responsive to changes in heavy drinking than violent crime in general. So a good horseback guess is that doubling the federal tax now would lead to about 500 fewer homicides next year.

Since All Lives Matter, why don’t we do it?





Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

16 thoughts on “Violent crime up second year in a row”

  1. "You’re welcome to blame Black Lives Matter activists if that makes you feel better"
    I don't blame them because it makes me feel better, I blame because they deserve blame. It is actually profoundly disappointing and anger-inducing… it is far from cathartic. BLM has taken a winning argument (Black people have been treated unfairly and deserve a portfolio of major policy solutions aimed at addressing this) and tortured it into the most disastrous social movement I have seen in my lifetime. Ironically, the victims of BLM's inability to watch a video and draw reasonable conclusions are in fact black people in rough neighborhoods. I would lay $1000 against $10 that BLM has killed more black people than it has saved… but of course, black victims are invisible if the shooter is a black civilian. No one cares (except, as you note, the police). The situation is beyond disgusting.

    "in studying the converse problem of cops killed by civilians, that 96% of those deaths involve firearms, strongly suggesting that shooting unarmed civilians, or those armed only with knives or clubs"
    Unless the reason we have such low rates of officers killed by knives and clubs is precisely BECAUSE our cops shoot people who are trying to kill them with knives and clubs. I just took a look at a list of UK police killed in action, and stabbings account for much much more than 4% of officers KiTL… I am sure some of this effect comes from the lower availability of firearms creating a lower rate of officers KiTL, but I am also sure that some of those constables who were stabbed to death would be alive today if they had had a firearm with which to disable the assailant. Also, since all of our cops are armed… who is to say that a stabbing of a cop won't turn into a shooting of a cop? You can't allow yourself to become disabled if you have a gun on your hip. The stakes are way, way too high.

    In a strictly moral/theoretical sense, I would rather 100 knife-wielding assailants die than one single honest police officer. No, you know what, make it 1000. At some point we run into the moral boundary imposed by people who are actually in a psychotic break and that is why they are attacking police with clubs and knives, but until we are able to offer violent schizophrenics a prognosis other than really fucking bad, I would not buy their survival in exchange for the death of an honest cop. One thing we could and should be doing to reduce OI shootings of psychotics is to have special teams with enhanced less-than-lethal capabilities handle calls that have psych written all over them… I have seen way too many videos that start with one or two standard patrolmen responding to "my son is off his meds and won't listen to me." We have way too many OI shootings of that preventable type, but other than those, I am not optimistic about our ability to save knife-wielding psychotics without substantively endangering police. As for assailants who are not in a psychotic break… I would rather 1 million of them die than one single honest cop.

    If Zimring somehow managed to separate out the survival benefit to police for quickly shooting knife/club assailants, I am quite happy to be told that I am wrong and shown how. I actually expect you to be able to do this, since my objection about survival benefit from shooting is so obvious Zimring would almost have to have dealt with it somehow.

    Oh and finally: Glad to see you posting more again Prof Kleiman. If you ever find a way to translate wonk charisma into generalized charisma and run for office, you will have my vote. You also have my vote for the doubling or trebling of the alcohol tax, my love of the bottle notwithstanding.

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I'm as likely to run for office as to run a marathon; in each case, I have enthusiasm but lack stamina.
      Even if I agreed with you that the lives taken by police are nearly worthless – which I emphatically do not – it's clear that police killings of civilians risk, under current conditions, social backlash that tends to raise murder rates across the board. That's a high price to pay, when there are clearly ways to avoid it without risking the lives of police. German cops rarely kill, and are rarely killed.

      1. Yeah actually I do think that the difference in the number of criminals, horribleness of criminals, and the extent to which they are armed explains almost all of the difference between the rates of civilians killed by police in the US and Germany. Also culture: We celebrate individualism to an extent that can be harmful, and I doubt European ghettos are quite as completely in the grips of an anti-culture as ours are. I think if we implemented the psych response teams for psych calls, we will have done almost everything we can to lower OIS in our country without substantively endangering cops. I will certainly never ask a policeman to tolerate being hit with a bat or cut with a knife so we can save the person doing it. Hopefully I am wrong, because if I am then we can improve our policing significantly just by changing tactics… which is easy compared to addressing poverty, restraining culture, etc.

        I am all in favor of ways we can help our police kill fewer people without dying more, but I will tell you this: If I was armed and I saw someone attacking you with a bat or a knife, I would shoot them until they stopped moving. If someone attacked me with a knife or a bat, I would run the entire mag into them… and no mortal would ever get an apology for it.

        1. Yeah actually I do think that the difference in the number of criminals, horribleness of criminals, and the extent to which they are armed explains almost all of the difference between the rates of civilians killed by police in the US and Germany.

          It's a bit more complicated than that.

          For starters, neither are German criminals nicer than American criminals (though the respective criminal justice systems do create different incentives), nor are German police officers saints. Just google the case of Oury Jalloh. It has everything that you'd expect from a police misconduct case in America: from a black man dying mysteriously in police custody to a blue wall of silence. Except that it didn't happen in America, but in Dessau, Saxony-Anhalt.

          The reasons why there are so many fewer police killings of civilians are multi-faceted. To name a few likely causes:

          One, police training is far more extensive in Germany. German police officers typically undergo 2.5-3 years of training (details vary by state). They're not only trained in use of a firearm, but also how to deescalate dangerous situations, what responses are considered proportionate (a warning shot is almost always required if it is safe to do so, for example), and the legal rights and duties of police officers in the performance of their duties.

          Two, criminals will practically never shoot at a police officer; not because they're nicer or because they lack access to weapons (though weapons are a bit more difficult to come by than in America), but because it'd be extremely stupid for them to do so. For all but the most serious crimes, you're unlikely to end up behind bars for more than a couple of years, and German prisons are much nicer than American ones. But if you kill a police officer while committing a crime, this is a virtually automatic life sentence (not because police officers are special, but because a life sentence is mandatory for all intentional homicides committed to facilitate the commission of another crime). People who shoot or threaten to shoot a German cop are almost always either stupid, desperate, or have mental health issues. In fact, the majority of people shot by German police officers did have mental health issues (it has been suggested as a result that police officers need better training for dealing with mentally ill individuals).

          Three, different attitude. I remember talking with a German police officer (my godfather is a German public prosecutor, so I've met German LEOs on occasion) about a case in Wiesbaden where a man pulled a gun on a cop. Rather than shooting him immediately (which would have been self-defense), she and her partner retreated behind cover and she managed to talk him down. As it turned out, the guy's gun was a fake. What struck me about it was not the story (these things happen more often than you think), but the reaction of the aforementioned police officer I was talking to, who clearly admired her reaction and that she had managed to save a life. He wouldn't have blamed her if she'd shot him in self-defense (and probably defended her), but he clearly admired her choice. Contrast that with the (admittedly extreme) case of Stephen Mader, who was fired by his police department for attempting to deescalate a similar situation.

          1. Thanks for the information Katja, a very interesting comment.

            "It's a bit more complicated than that."

            Of course, I didn't mean to say that "niceness" as a quality in criminals varies magically from country to country, I have always assumed that criminal conduct is heavily affected by incentives. My only note of caution would be that – at least in the US – the people who try to kill police have very low average IQs and thus don't respond as well to incentives as the rest of the society (not that they don't respond to incentives, just that they don't do it as well). Many killings of police in the United States cannot be explained by saying that the criminal was responding rationally to an opportunity to escape. People shoot at our cops in totally hopeless situations all the time, even without a hint of psychosis. I think culture is much more important than people think.

            I am sure you are right about attitudes. One of the few areas in which I am in alignment with the political right wing in this country is in my belief that it is no great loss to the rest of us if a non-psychotic serious criminal is put down forever. For example, when I watch the video of the shooting of Sylville Smith, I am prone to cracking a smile. It isn't a race thing, I smile when Sylville equivalents who happen to be white get the same treatment. You can judge me for this if you want to, I expect that the average leftist and the average European would judge me for it. What you should understand though is that a large percentage of the American people feel as I do. I am not sure if I would feel this way if I hadn't been put in fear of life by non-psychotic criminals before, but I have. It isn't something you forget.

          2. I thought about the story of the German LEO who sought cover when drawn down on. It is a good thing the gun was fake, otherwise she and her partner might have caught some rounds in the back. The move that she made is heroic under any circumstances, good for her, but heroes die quickly in some circumstances. This really comes down to how often a gun draw is suicide-by-cop versus what it looks like. If suicide-by-cop is much more likely than an actual intent to fire, the heroism is smart heroism. If, on the other hand, suicide-by-cop is not an overwhelmingly probable explanation for the draw, this heroism is suicidal. If she had been policing South Central Los Angeles this way, she would be as dead as disco.

  2. Mark, are there any studies on whether people substitute marijuana consumption for alcohol consumption when it is legalized? (If there were, a collateral benefit of marijuana legalization could be a reduction in crime)

    1. Good question, although from personal experience I think sadly it is not likely to be so. Fact is, marijuana makes alcohol abuse more fun and more tolerable, since it is one of the only effective approaches to hangover relief and the combined effect is quite pleasant. But then again, expense is a limiting factor so… it would probably hinge to some extent on how pricey weed ended up being in your legalization scenario.

    2. The evidence so far is discouraging. The beer distributors in Washington and Colorado seem to be doing just fine.

  3. And wait, did Zimring account for officer deaths that started as a knife/cudgel/unarmed assault and ended in a shooting with the officer's gun? I wouldn't be surprised if he missed that one, and that would do some confounding.

  4. I also welcome a post by Mark. This one brings us bad news, but it is splendidly wise and tough minded.

  5. Prof. Kleiman, I'm astonished that you wrote this entire posting, and even noted the increase in white-on-white violence, but never once used the words "opioid" or "heroin".

  6. So I'm not entirely sure on this. Please (seriously) correct me if I'm wrong, but the main effect of BLM seems to have been to hurt the feelings of police officers. I am not sure that as blame is passed around, much of it shouldn't be attached to people who pull back on doing their jobs because their feeling are hurt.

    1. You are absolutely wrong. You really think this is some sort of nationwide ESP conspiracy by the police to get us back for their hurt feelings? Cops are not punishing black people out of petulance, they are responding to the messages (and the incentive matrix created by these messages) that are being sent by prosecutors, politicians, and protesters. Cops are not merely being told that shooting black people will cause them problems, they are also being told that policing black people at all could cause them problems. The anti-police movement demands less proactive policing in black neighborhoods (where all of the murder is). Cops are staying in their cars because that is what they are being told to do, and if they get out of their cars and dare to actually defend themselves in certain neighborhoods, who knows what could happen.

      Paul, where is Darren Wilson? Is he in hiding out of petulance? What about the prosecutors who had "heard the community's cry of no justice, no peace" leveling absurd charges against the 6 officers in the Freddie Gray debacle? You think cops have missed all of this stuff and are only acting out their feeling of being unappreciated? No. If you are a cop in a big city and someone tries to kill you, the odds are overfuckingwhelming they will be black. Would you get out of your car? And don't say you would if you have never been in their boots, because if you haven't, you don't have a clue.

      Every legit shooting of a black person by a cop, even if the evidence is plain as day, triggers protests, death threats, etc. That is why the streets of Baltimore are running red. Do your job, get put on trial. Sound like a game you would want to play? Yeah, I didn't think so.

      And by the way, it isn't just protesters, prosecutors and politicians. Even high-end academics who appear to be genuinely lovely people are having fun jumping on the bandwagon and calling for the judicial lynchings of police. Does this look familiar?… The Alton Sterling shooting was 100% necessary and justified, and the academic left happily writes that the video proves that you are a murderer, when in fact the video proves the exact opposite. Can you imagine what that would feel like? It wouldn't make you feel unappreciated, it would make you feel UNSAFE. A video that conclusively proves your innocence is taken by apparent experts to prove that you should go to jail for life while they fawn over a picture of a protester who has also not watched the videos. It is like 1984 in reverse. Try to wrap your head around that. It is mind-blowing.

  7. Starting to get the feeling that you feel most problems might be amenable to regressive taxation? Starting to see a pattern after your previous post about raising cigarette taxes.

    Perhaps, instead of making alcohol and cigarettes more expensive for those of us not of the great unwashed, we might accomplish the same ends (taking more alcohol and cigarettes out of the hands of *all* poor people – the 99% who aren't hurting anyone unfortunately included.) by lowering the minimum wage down to $5/hr?

    Even though this might be, as you say, just a blip of statistical noise, what they hey – where is the down side? To us, I mean.

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