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Why Are Murder Rates Spiking in Some American Cities?

Are cops too afraid of being indicted for police brutality to do their jobs anymore, or are young men just more prone to settle beefs with gun violence? Spoiler: No one knows.

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton at a Wednesday press conference in Manhattan. Photo by the author

At a Wednesday afternoon press conference, New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton thanked three officers for saving the city from a "slew of problems." The day before, at around 3:30 PM, Andrew Vlasaty, Erik Skoglund, and Adam Riddick used a GPS-tracking app to apprehend car thief who was on a multi-state crime spree that included murdering a pawn shop clerk and raping a 15-year-old girl.


The capture of 21-year-old Kendrick Gregory was a perfect parable for the commissioner's message: Violent crime may a growing problem in major cities across America right now, but not New York. As the New York Times reported Tuesday, murder rates have risen sharply in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Baltimore this year. But Bratton and several other members of the NYPD's top brass used the Wednesday press conference to crow to a roomful of reporters about how the city just experienced its safest summer in the past 25 years.

According to the Times, Milwaukee had 59 murders in 2014 and has had 104 so far in 2015 —a 76 percent increase, and it's not even fall yet. (Places not even mentioned in the article have seen rising homicide rates, too, like Los Angeles, and Philadelphia, although other cities, like San Diego have seen fewer murders.) Some experts told the paper that officers were being passive in an era of national scrutiny towards them, and that young men were more likely than ever to use violence to resolve minor disputes.

But David Kennedy of the Center of Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York says that anyone who claims to know what's going on here is "not being honest," and that the idea of violence spiking because cops are afraid of indictment is demonstrably false.

"With regards to the places where there are big changes, like Milwaukee and Baltimore, we have no idea at this point whether this represents the beginning of a trend," he told me. "And in St. Louis, there's an alleged 'Ferguson effect.' But if you look at what's happening there, the crime numbers were actually going up before [Michael Brown was shot] and have gone down since."


Kennedy also said that it's impossible to extrapolate anything meaningful from a few months of data. To date, New York has seen an increase in homicides of 9 percent this year, according to the Times. When asked if he was worried by the statistics in other metropolises at his Wednesday press conference, Bratton scoffed and referred again to the trio of officers who apprehended the out-of-state criminal.

"I do not expect that all," he said. "A lot of thats has to do with the resources we have, resources that are being expanded this year with 1,300 new cops, significant overtime, the technology we're acquiring, as well as the skill sets you get to see. Today you were just exposed to the creativity of three of our young officers, so, no I'm quite comfortable we're not gonna see anything like—unfortunately—many of our colleagues are experiencing in other major cities around the country."

If Bratton citing a small data set to pat his department on the back is arguably misleading, his comments Tuesday on MSNBC's Morning Joe were just plain weird. On the talk show, he drew controversy for referencing the work of former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who wrote a report for the US Department of Labor in 1965 called "The Negro Family: The Case For National Action." Bratton called the paper "prescient" and talked about "the disintegrations of family, the disintegration of values" in the black community.

(An assemblyman in Brooklyn and a spokeswoman for Communities United for Police Reform both told POLITICO New York they thought the comment was "racist.")

At the press conference, a reporter asked Bratton to clarify his comments, and the commissioner thanked him for the opportunity.

"There is no denying in the African-American community that there are strong cultural, strong religious, strong community, values," he explained. "But that over time, and this is what the Moynihan report spoke to, there is no community that has been so stressed over time as the African-American community: 250 years of slavery, 150 years of Jim Crow, coming out of Jim Crow, the segregation that spawned the civil rights movement. And at the time that report was written, it was a call to action, to assist a community that has been impacted like no other community in our history."

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