We have noted for the last few weeks a growing belief among many that murder rates are rising and the #blacklivesmatter movement, according to some conservative publications, is to blame. Last week, they were handed heavy fuel in the form of a front-page New York Times article, Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities.
There is a growing belief among some that “less aggressive policing has emboldened criminals.”
Cornell University law professor Joseph Margulies writes in Verdict today that “lethal violence in urban America is hyper-concentrated. It is confined overwhelmingly to a very tiny number of people who assault each other with deadly weapons at a comparably tiny number of places.”
He says that if we are committed to being “smart on crime,” we cannot “turn this problem, however serious it may be, into a justification for repressive policing strategies that we know don’t work—policies like ‘zero tolerance,’ which systematically misallocate police resources onto the innocent many and away from the dangerous few.”
Professor Margulies argues, “The far greater danger is the risk that some will contrive a link between the rise in homicides and the nascent movement to criticize and curb police violence, and in that way create a new symbolic demon that can be deployed to blunt the call for change. Indeed, the contriving has already begun.”
This movement, he says, began with a claim, “for which there is no evidence, that movements like #BlackLivesMatter have emboldened criminals—especially those who would assault the police—and emasculated law enforcement. Thus, when an officer is killed in the line of duty by a black assailant, #BlackLivesMatter is accused of having blood on its hands.”
He continues, saying that “the second step has just appeared. Conservative commentators have now begun to argue that #BlackLivesMatter and other critiques of law enforcement are in fact responsible for the increase in homicides, and thus threaten to reverse the long decline in violent crime rates that we have enjoyed for more than two decades.”
Professor Margulies cited two recent examples that followed the New York Times front page article.
Front Page Magazine ran a column titled, “New York Times Baffled by Massive Rise in Murder Rate it Caused,” writing: “Let’s see. Radical leftist pro-crime mayor who decided to wage war on cops. Radical leftist pro-crime president who decided to wage war on cops. Radical leftist pro-crime media which decided to wage war on cops. Now murders are mysteriously rising for reasons they can’t explain. It must be Global Warming. . . . Now let’s run another #BlackLivesMatter puff piece and more pro-crime propaganda about freeing drug dealers.”
Professor Margulies continues, “Less hyperbolically, but with no more evidence, the National Review used the Times article to focus on Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Baltimore, where the murder rates have increased the most,” he continues.
He quotes the Review: “What do [these cities] have in common? They’ve all been at the center of the radical critique mounted by #BlackLivesMatter. In St. Louis, arrests are down and murder is up. In Baltimore, arrests are down and murder is up. In Milwaukee, still dealing with the death of Dontre Hamilton, [Police] Chief Flynn has spoken openly of how—time after time—aggressive policing met with media and activist pushback, until the department retreated into initiatives focused on ‘building empathy.’”
Professor Margulies concludes, “We are thus watching the creation of a new symbolic demon before our eyes. A legitimate cause for concern—an apparent rise in homicides—is deployed for ideological purposes by creating a new demon—namely, the radical black activist who intimidates the police and encourages mayhem, and in the process reverses the gains of the past two decades”
But is this analysis even correct?
Bruce Frederick of the Marshall Project calls this analysis “badly misleading,” noting, “The Times isn’t an academic journal, and its story wasn’t meant to be a rigorous analysis of a big database; it was a glimpse into a current conversation with some new numbers.”
The first problem that Mr. Frederick notes is data selection. The article analyzes ten cities with populations over 317,000 (St. Louis) and includes New York, the most populous city in the nation. However, Mr. Fredrick points out there are in fact 60 cities in that range and the Times includes just four of the 20 most populous cities.
Mr. Frederick critically notes, “The authors do not explain how those cities were chosen, leaving readers to assume that the findings presented are representative of a broader increase in homicides across U.S. cities. That does not appear to be the case.”
He looked at publicly available data that supported a similar analysis for 16 of the 20 most populous cities, “and the results, summarized below, suggest a much less pervasive increase than one might infer from the Times analysis.”
One problem – not all of the increases were statistically reliable. He writes that “some of them are small increases, or are based on small numbers of cases, such that the observed increases could have occurred by chance alone. Among the 16 top-20 cities for which I found publically available data, only three experienced statistically reliable increases.”
He continues, “Only one of the top-20 cities included in the Times’ sample, Chicago, experienced an increase that was statistically significant. Five of the smaller cities included by the Times did experience statistically reliable increases, but what of the other 35 cities with populations in that range?”
Chicago itself represents a problem but also an illustration that “a single year-to-year increase does not necessarily imply a meaningful trend. Often, such changes fall within the range of normal year-to-year fluctuations.”
Chicago was “the only top 20-city in the Times analysis that had a statistically significant increase from 2014 to 2015.”
However, Chicago’s homicide rate has actually greatly fluctuated since 2009. It went up 5.1 percent from 2009 to 2010, then down 13.1 percent the next year. That was followed by “a 28.5 percent increase and then decreases of 16.4 and 3.4 percent in 2013 and 2014, before homicides climbed back up 11.3 percent in 2015.”
Mr. Frederick therefore finds, “Looked at over a longer time period, the numbers do not demonstrate a stable trend.”
He writes that “neither the Times analysis nor my own yields compelling evidence that there has been a pervasive increase in homicides that is substantively meaningful. It seems premature to be discussing broad explanations and long-term solutions for what may not be a broad or long-term phenomenon. And yet the spike in a few cities has already prompted speculation that the numbers reflect the increased availability of guns, or the demoralization of police.”
Mr. Frederick is quick to point out that the absence of reliable data does not prove that changes are not happening, only that we lack evidence to make such drastic conclusions. Public policy, in our view, should be driven by actual data, not knee-jerk reactions to catastrophic events.
Or, as Professor Margulies puts it, “It is all well and good to profess a commitment to being ‘smart on crime.’ But we cannot turn the other way as evidence is misused yet again to justify the creation of yet another symbolic demon for the purpose of yet another round of repressive attacks on blacks. At some point, to be ‘smart on crime’ demands that we say, simply but firmly, ‘Never again.’”
—David M. Greenwald reporting