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DOJ Study Finds “Real And Nearly Unprecedented” Spike In Homicides Around U.S.

We have frequently written about rising violent crime around the U.S. with an emphasis on the soaring homicides in Chicago which are up nearly 50% YoY (see recent posts here and here).  Now it seems as though others in the mainstream media are starting to take notice.

The New York Times recently compiled data from around the country and found there were nearly 6,700 homicides reported in the 100 largest cities in 2015, a YoY increase of 950 or roughly 17%, with nearly half of the rise — 480 of the 950 — coming from seven cities.  Their study is tied to a June 2016 report published by the National Institute of Justice in which Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, declared that “the [2015] homicide increase in the nation’s large cities was real and nearly unprecedented.”

Murder rates rose significantly in 25 of the nation’s 100 largest cities last year, according to an analysis by The New York Times of new data compiled from individual police departments.


The findings confirm a trend that was tracked recently in a study published by the National Institute of Justice. “The homicide increase in the nation’s large cities was real and nearly unprecedented,” wrote the study’s author, Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who explored homicide data in 56 large American cities.


In the Times analysis, half of the increase came from just seven cities — Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville and Washington.

The map below highlights the cities with the biggest spikes in YoY murder rates from 2014 to 2015.  That said, the data doesn’t speak to the continued rise in violence so far in 2016 with Chicago homicides up nearly 50% YoY.

National Homicides


And here is a look at the YoY increase in homicides in the top 56 cities of the U.S. courtesy of the National Institute of Justice report from June 2016.

Top 56 Cities


The chart below helps illustrate just how pervasive the homicide spike across the country is with the most cities reporting a substantial spike in YoY murders since the early 90s.

National Homicides


Meanwhile the New York Times attributes the spike in violent crime to a variety of issues including poverty, lack of aggressive policing in the wake of protests related to “high-profile police killings of African-Americans”, and increased drug usage.

In his study, Dr. Rosenfeld said that rising crime might be linked to less aggressive policing that resulted from protests of high-profile police killings of African-Americans. But he said this hypothesis, a version of the so-called Ferguson effect, which has spurred heated debate among lawmakers and criminologists, must be further evaluated.


Some experts attribute the sudden spike in violence largely to a flood of black-market opiates looted from pharmacies during riots in April 2015. The death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who sustained a fatal spinal cord injury in police custody, had set off the city’s worst riots since the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


During the riots, nearly 315,000 doses of drugs were stolen from 27 pharmacies and two methadone clinics, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, a number much higher than the 175,000 doses the agency initially estimated.

The “why now” question is something we recently addressed in another post entitled “Milwaukee Homicides Soar – What Is Going On In the Murderous Midwest?“.  While the typical explanations for violent crime (e.g. poverty, unemployment, etc.) may explain why crime is higher in certain cities it certainly doesn’t explain why the sudden spike is occurring now. Thomas Abt of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government thinks the sudden spike is more likely due to the “Ferguson Effect” or a concept he refers to as “legal cynicism.” 

The key question is why the spike in violence now?  Ask any “expert” to explain the cause of violent crime and you’ll get a range of responses from systemic problems of poverty, unemployment, lack of education of inner city youth, breakdown of the family unit, etc.  The problem is that none of those things explain the sudden changes in violence we’re currently witnessing in the Midwest.


Thomas Abt, senior research fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, believes the issue is more likely what other political commentators have dubbed “the Ferguson Effect.”  Writing for The Marshall Project, Abt discussed what he thought might be causing the sudden spike in violent crimes in the Midwest:


It is unclear what is driving the problem, but my own hunch – and it is still just a hunch at this point – involves a criminological phenomenon called legal cynicism. Multiple studies have demonstrated that, controlling for other factors, when communities view the police and criminal justice system as illegitimate, they become more violent. When people believe the system is unwilling or unable to help them, they are more likely to take the law into their own hands, creating the cycles of violent retribution that were chronicled so vividly last year in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside.

The “Ferguson Effect” explanation does seem to be supported by a substantial and sustained spike in Baltimore homicides after the Freddie Gray death.

Baltimore Homicides

Baltimore Homicides


The question is how comments like the ones below from our commander-in-chief  impact whether people “view the criminal justice system as illegitimate”?

September 2014 Comments at the Congressional Black Caucus Awards Dinner – “Too many young men of color feel targeted by law enforcement, guilty of walking while black, or driving while black, judged by stereotypes that fuel fear and resentment and hopelessness. We know that, statistically, in everything from enforcing drug policy to applying the death penalty to pulling people over, there are significant racial disparities.


November 2014 Comments Regarding Ferguson grand jury decision – “The law too often feels like it’s being applied in a discriminatory fashion….Communities of color aren’t just making these problems up….These are real issues. And we have to lift them up and not deny them or try to tamp them down.”


May 2015 Comments at Lehman College – The catalyst of those protests were the tragic deaths of young men and a feeling that law is not always applied evenly in this country. In too many places in this country, black boys and black men, Latino boys, Latino men, they experience being treated differently by law enforcement — in stops and in arrests, and in charges and incarcerations. The statistics are clear, up and down the criminal justice system; there’s no dispute.

We’ll let you be the judge of that.