Close your eyes and you could be back in the crime-plagued New York of the late 1980s. Last week’s mayoral debate was dominated by how candidates would tackle the city’s rising crime rates. Murders in New York rose last year by 43 per cent — and are on track to be higher this year than last.
The situation is even uglier in Chicago, which is close to its 1974 peak when almost 1,000 people were murdered. Ditto across urban America. There is even speculation about a repeat of the suburban exodus of the late 1960s and 1970s.
It would be unfair to blame Joe Biden for any of this. Yet as president — and leader of the party that controls most big US cities — he will pay a price if it goes on. The question is what he and local leaders can do about it.
The answer, unfortunately, is more complex than simply defeating the pandemic. Most of the nation’s rising homicide rates precede last year’s lockdowns, even though coronavirus added fuel to the fire. For the first time since 1995, more than 20,000 Americans were murdered last year. Overall, US murders were up by a quarter from the levels of 2019.
It would be easier to isolate causes if the problem were confined to a handful of places. But last year’s increase runs the gamut from mostly white smaller cities to large multi-ethnic ones. It is hard to find a wider cross-section of urban America than Philadelphia (40 per cent), Houston (42 per cent), Denver (51 per cent) and Washington DC (19 per cent). Yet they point the same way. Most also had significant homicide increases in 2019. This year is already worse than last. Community leaders across America are bracing for a long hot summer.
Democrats are bound to take most of the heat, but the blame should be shared. The Republicans’ refusal to consider even the semblance of gun control remains serenely unshaken by mass shootings, which have soared this year.
Their default response is “thoughts and prayers” — and even more rights for gun owners. It is surely no accident that the nation’s era of falling crime, which began in the 1990s and bottomed out in 2014, coincided with a 10-year assault weapons ban. The measure was contained in a 1994 bill co-sponsored by Biden, then a Delaware senator. Apart from a possible tightening of background checks, Biden looks unable to persuade this Congress to pass serious gun control.
The Republicans’ dislike of police reform is another recurring problem. One reason that relations between communities and law enforcement have become so dire is because so many minorities do not trust them.
Biden wants to pass a bill to dilute the “qualified immunity” that makes it so hard to prosecute offending officers, except in extreme cases such as that of Derek Chauvin, who was convicted last month of murdering George Floyd. Although it is extremely rare to convict a police officer, the bill is unlikely to get anywhere.
But Democrats also bear plenty of blame for what is going wrong. Biden has always repudiated “defund the police” campaigners. Had he not done so, Donald Trump might have won last year’s election. Cities where the police last year all but withdrew in the face of protests suffered some of the highest jumps in murder rates. These include Minneapolis (75 per cent), Portland, Oregon (60 per cent) and Seattle (41 per cent). Seattle only dismantled a police-free “autonomous zone” last year after a spate of local killings.
As a rallying cry, “defund the police” enthuses activists. It goes down less well with most Americans, including African-Americans. It is notable that the two New York mayoral candidates who are leading the pack — Andrew Yang and Eric Adams — have been clearest in condemning “defund the police”. Dianne Morales, the candidate who has embraced it most openly, is polling at just 5 per cent. According to Gallup, only a fifth of African-Americans want fewer police on the streets. The evidence supports them. Where police are more visible, crime usually falls.
There are other reasons behind growing crime, such as the increasing unaffordability of cities and the rise of prosecutorial forbearance. This has largely reversed the 1990s era of “zero tolerance” for small crimes, which were thought to beget a culture of impunity.
Used syringes, a harbinger of a return to street drug dealing, and chronic homelessness are becoming rife again in America’s cities, even in New York. Fairly or not, liberals will take most of the blame if such trends persist. Biden would be unlikely to escape the backlash.