Worried about rising crime rates? Then it's time to get the police under control

Violent crime has been decreasing for decades, but a recent surge shows why the police need to earn back our trust

Published July 20, 2015 3:30PM (EDT)

  (AP/Patrick Semansky)
(AP/Patrick Semansky)

Multiple cities across the United States are witnessing a spike in homicidal violence in 2015. This comes as major urban areas have seen record declines in the number of homicides after reaching record highs in the 1980s and '90s due to the violence associated with the crack cocaine epidemic.  As the violence spikes, city residents are wondering what is causing the violence and leading to a growth in homicides.

But national spikes in violence are not new. For instance in 1919, the United States was convulsed by a period known as the Red Summer.  As Black soldiers were returning home from World War I, they were viewed with derision in their home country. Often times, labor was the flashpoint as Black workers were often leaving the South in droves during the Great Migration.  The first flashpoint occurred in 1917 in East St. Louis where Black workers were brought in to break a strike of white workers at the Aluminum Ore Company.

In 1919, a crime wave of murder and mayhem broke out in more than 30 cities as whites attacked Black residents during a particularly bloody period.  Rioting took place in cities ranging from San Francisco, Chicago, Omaha, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Memphis, and Washington DC.  Mass lynchings and murder were carried out in Elaine, Arkansas, where Black sharecroppers were organizing a union to protect themselves from exploitation in the market.  White farmers feared the economic prowess of Black farmers and killed 237 Black farmers, in Elaine and across Phillip County.

Fast forward: Starting in 1964, rioting erupted in urban areas in Black communities such as Harlem in New York City (1964), Philadelphia (1964), Watts in Los Angeles (1965), Chicago (1966), Omaha (1966), Cleveland (1966), Detroit (1967), and Newark (1967).  The violence in Philly and Harlem started after incidents of police brutality, while in other cities poor economic conditions, high unemployment, and government policies such as urban renewal and highway displacement were cited as causal factors (by the National Commission on Urban Problems).

After Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, despair and disillusionment in Black communities turned to mass rioting in 110 cities in what has been called the Holy Week Uprising.  The biggest eruptions of violence took place in Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, and Louisville.  Many cities were occupied for some length of time by National Guard troops, which were sent to help quell the disturbances.

In the 1980s, violence in urban areas spiked due to the gang violence over drug turf, especially for the sale of crack cocaine in redlined, disinvested Black communities especially in large cities like Los Angeles and New York City.  This continued through the 1990s when criminologists began to note a decline in violent crime all across the nation.  We have been in that decline for most of the new millennium.

Although the level of homicides and violence are still well below the highs reached in the 1980s and 1990s, the nation is now the midst of another spike in violence.  According to data published in USA Today, homicides numbers have increased in multiple cities -- including Baltimore (up 38 percent), Chicago (up 15.8 percent), Dallas (up 28.3 percent), Milwaukee (up 104 percent), New Orleans (up 36.1 percent), Houston (up 42.5 percent), New York (up 11 percent), St. Louis (up 60.3 percent), and Washington DC (up 17.7 percent) --  when compared to figures from 2014. Although homicides are down in cities such as Phoenix, San Diego, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles, the rate of violent crimes remains elevated in at least some of those cities.

With the uprisings we’ve witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore, on the heels of urgent questions regarding police use of excessive force, along with the white supremacist terrorist attack in Charleston, one must wonder if indeed spikes in homicides in this country are not tied in some way to spikes in racial hostility. Many of the cities with the largest spikes in homicides also appear on sociologists Douglass Massey and Jonathan Tanmen’s list of hyper-segregated metropolitan areas in 2010 including Baltimore, Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York City.  Furthermore, homicide rates are up in the precise moment when Black people’s trust in the police is in the midst of a years-long decline.

Of course, it’s important not to overstate the significance of such crime surges occurring over a relatively small window of time during what is otherwise a decades-long decrease in violent crime rates. However, the statistics still present a problem for police departments, who already face increased public scrutiny following a number of high-profile abuses, and will undoubtedly spur conversations across the country about the appropriate application of law enforcement. The question is: Can municipalities and police departments curb the spike in homicides before such violence begins to trend toward previous highs? In order to do so, city leaders and police departments must return to the most basic factor in addressing crime: Trust in the police.

When a higher percentage of people in communities don’t trust police, violent criminals are emboldened because they too know that police-community relations are essential to effective law enforcement. As U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan stated: “Police can’t do their job unless they have the trust of the community. Trust is their passport. And every officer knows that and understands it.” But for people living in redlined, disinvested Black communities where police use higher levels of force, residents are caught between a rock and a hard place—with residents who may be committing homicide on one side and police who may murder unarmed Black residents on the other. As it stands, Black residents may resist working with police departments because many may be unsure whether police will instead victimize them in the process.

Before his untimely death in 1994, Robert Trojanowicz was the leading proponent of community-oriented policing. He wrote in one of his works that:

Helpful information will be forthcoming from community members when police have established a relationship of trust with the community they serve. Establishing this trust will take time, particularly in communities where internal conflicts exist or where relations with the police have been severely strained. Community policing offers a way for the police and the community to work together to resolve the serious problems that exist in these neighborhoods. Only when community members believe the police are genuinely interested in community perspectives and problems will they begin to view the police as a part of that community.

Right now, given the increased anxiety around police mistreatment of Black residents, most Black people do not feel that police are a part of their communities. This is doubly so when we realize that only 35 percent of white police officers live in the communities where they patrol, along with 49 and 47 percent of Black and Latino officers respectively. While there was a push during the Clinton administration to fund community-oriented policing, other approaches have ascended.  Broken windows policing, Stop-and-Frisk, zero tolerance, Compstat-driven, militarized, and now predictive policing strategies have become the dominant policing approaches, particularly in Black communities. This means that Black people are treated as hostiles or the enemy. None of these strategies attempt to do cohesively what Trojanowicz advocated: building relationships, establishing trust, and working together with a broad spectrum of the community.

No one should have to make the choice between public safety and personal safety—between helping solve a crime and being victimized by those sworn to serve and protect. If we committed to getting rid of segregation in America, then Black residents in desegregating cities would be able to have increased confidence that police would target actual criminals and not have the entire community be profiled and targeted due to the blackness of their skin. Once trust is rebuilt and restored, the homicide clearance rate would rise and police forces would have new partners in the fight against crime. But the only way we can get there is if America understands that current segregation is crimogenic, proliferates distrust in policing, and encourages the growth of racial hostility.

Not only would desegregation reduce crime by increasing access and opportunity, desegregating our cities would result over time in improved police-community interactions.  More integrated cities have fewer reports of the police use of excessive force.  More integration would help curb the impulse to resort to militarized policing we see disproportionately deployed in disinvested Black communities.  With more integrated cities, we could have more police officers living in our cities, building relationships with neighborhoods and not commuting.

By Lawrence Brown

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