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Are Police Protests Leading to an Increase in Crime?

Homicides are up in major cities. The combination of pandemic, recession and the two-way street of distrust between police and the communities they serve has created a "toxic mix of despair."

A man is comforted near the scene of a murder in Chicago in July. (Photo: Terrence Antonio James / Chicago)
A Wendy’s restaurant on University Avenue in Atlanta has become a flashpoint in the national debate over criminal justice. On June 12, Rayshard Brooks was killed there by a police officer during a scuffle, with the area then becoming became an encampment patrolled by armed protesters. On July 4, an 8-year-old girl named Secoriea Turner was shot and killed across the street in her mother’s car as the driver sought to avoid a roadblock.

“It has to stop,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms declared after the girl’s killing. She ordered the area around Wendy’s cleared by police, but protesters were back marching at the site this past Saturday.

Turner’s death was not the only killing of a child over the July 4 weekend. This past Sunday, 1-year-old Davell Gardner was shot and killed at a Brooklyn cookout, while three adults were injured. In Philadelphia, homicides have increased almost 30 percent over last year at this point. Murders have increased in other major cities including Baltimore, Kansas City, Los Angeles and Milwaukee.

“Everyone has been cooped up in a lot of these cities for a long time,” says Chris Herrmann, an assistant professor of law and police science at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “A lot of them are looking to settle scores for the last 12 or 14 weeks.”

Homicides actually decreased in April and May, compared to the three-year average, as more people stayed home due to coronavirus shutdowns. Overall crime rates are still down. But summer always sees an escalation in homicides. The season thus far has been brutal this year. 

“You’re more likely to see violence occur in summertime, but on top of that, we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” says Emily Mooney, resident policy fellow in criminal justice at the conservative R Street Institute. “Mental health isn’t exactly thriving for the last couple of months for many individuals.”

On top of the pandemic and recession, the latest round of violence occurs at a time when the nation is seeing the most widespread protests in decades over race in general but policing in particular, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. That has exacerbated problems of distrust surrounding law enforcement.

“The deadly COVID-19 pandemic, the unrest triggered by George Floyd’s murder, escalating poverty, broiling summer heat and a flood of illegal guns have created a toxic mix of despair in our city, and we must address it,” Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke said in a statement.

None of those factors have been resolved. As a result, chances are the number of gun homicides – while still well below standards set a generation ago – will stay high.

“This year in particular it’s going to be a really hot summer,” says Kalfani Ture, a criminal justice professor at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. “The summer of 2020 is going to be marked as one of the deadliest years, not only because of COVID-19, but gun violence.”

'Blue Fragility'

Before becoming an academic, Ture worked in law enforcement in the Atlanta area. He notes that morale was down among Atlanta police before criminal charges were brought against two officers in the Rayshard Brooks shooting. Earlier, six Atlanta officers had been charged with excessive force and aggravated assault after tasing college students during an anti-police protest in May.

Around the country, police have been complaining about the treatment they’re receiving. In Buffalo, 57 officers resigned from the emergency response team after two officers were suspended for shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground last month. There have been plenty of cases of “blue flu” lately.

“You have an almost unbroken narrative from the mainstream media that proactive policing is racist,” says Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. “The sense that officers have, that law enforcement is not supported in the culture, is even greater.”

There have been yard signs and demonstrations in recent weeks in support of police, but they’ve been outnumbered by Black Lives Matter signs and the anti-police protests. On Friday, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer’s remarks were cut off at a news conference when he was surrounded by protesters angry because charges have not been brought against the police officers involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor. Hundreds of individuals demonstrated in downtown Louisville on Monday, the four-month anniversary of Taylor’s death.

There’s a changed atmosphere surrounding police. Even before the current wave of protests, cops faced a shifting legal landscape, with cities pushing to abolish or overhaul cash bail systems and a new generation of reform-minded prosecutors criticizing mass incarceration and excessive arrests. Mac Donald says we’re seeing a repeat of the “Ferguson effect,” with police pulling back as they face not just criticism but also increased risk of criminal charges. 

“What’s happening around this moment is a massive work stoppage, where the law enforcement community feels like they’re under attack, so they’re less vigilant, they’re less active, they’re only providing law enforcement services in situations where they can’t pull back,” Ture says.

“Because the Black Lives Matter movement and their sympathizers have increasingly challenged the legitimacy of police officers, we’re witnessing what I’ve coined ‘blue fragility,’” he continues. “They intend to re-establish themselves as exclusive moral agents (within public safety), shutting off criticism and blocking off any type of reform.”

No Snitching

Academics have debated whether there was truly a Ferguson effect following the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in the wake of the 2014 death of Michael Brown in that St. Louis suburb. “It’s not clear to me that the police are withdrawing in significant numbers,” says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “I would have my doubts.”

Even though it’s early to speculate about the extent to which police are disengaging or being less proactive, it seems clear that people are becoming more distrustful of police. Not all people, by any means, but the daily drumbeat of protests and social media complaints about police violence is bound to have an effect. “The community, or certain communities, are drawing further from the police as a result of anger, frustration and fear,” Rosenfeld says. “They’re less likely to call police and more likely to take disputes into their own hands.”

Gang members don’t call police to settle disputes, but people around them might. Communities have now adopted an ethos of “no snitching,” Ture says, citing the still-raw emotions surrounding the killing of George Floyd, as well as the police killing last year of Elijah McClain as he walked home from a convenience store in Aurora, Colo.

“I would normally call the police when I see something, or I’d call the police when I know something, but I can’t do it because of the perception they’re killing community members, innocent members of our community,” Ture says, summarizing the ethos.

Who Suffers?

Following the death of Secoriea Turner, Mayor Bottoms said it couldn’t be blamed on police officers. “It’s about people who shot a baby in a car,” she said. “We’re doing each other more harm than any officer on this force.”

The leading cause of death for Black males ages 17 to 34 in the United States is homicide. It’s the leading cause of death for Black people of both sexes from ages 15 to 27. “Whether you’re talking about police violence or community violence, the victims are disproportionately poor people and people of color,” says Brandon del Pozo, a policy researcher and former Burlington, Vt., police chief.

Semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines put individuals at risk, even when they might be a block away from an area of conflict. Even trained police officers hit their targets only a third of the time, says Herrmann, the John Jay professor. “The gangbanger or whoever else is going to hit the target even less,” he says. “Whenever there’s gun violence, there’s going to be collateral damage. Those other bullets are going somewhere.”

Most people don’t need to worry about ever getting hit by stray bullets, Herrmann says. People who live in high-crime neighborhoods do. They have traditionally been harmed more by a lack of police attention and resources than they have from police brutality. 

“Right now, people are talking about abolishing policing or defunding policing,” del Pozo says. “You can argue about which interventions are best, but right now, if you don’t have a plan to replace those services, the worry is that there’s none.”

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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