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July 14, 2020, 11:21 PM

Crime is surging in US cities. Some say defunding the police will actually make it fall

By Scottie Andrew

It's been a long time since summer in the US felt this feverish.

It's not just the coronavirus, the social unrest and the soaring temperatures. Violent crime is surging.

Shootings and homicides, which dipped during the initial lockdown phase of the pandemic, are now rising at alarmingly high rates.

In New York, the homicide rate for the first half of the year is up 23% over 2019, led by a huge spike in recent violence. In Chicago, homicides jumped 39% during the last week of June and the first week of July compared to the same period last year. And Los Angeles has seen double-digit rises in homicides the past two months.

In Atlanta, New Orleans, Washington and other cities, the shooting victims have included children. On Sunday in Brooklyn, a 1-year-old boy was killed by gunfire in his stroller while picnicking with his family.

Opponents of the recent movement to defund police, including President Trump, blame Black Lives Matter protesters and civil unrest for this rise in crime. And they say that what's happening now is a prime example of why cities should not cut police departments' funding. As they see it, this crime surge calls for more police and bigger law enforcement budgets.

But supporters of defunding police -- reducing police budgets and redirecting the money to communities in other ways, such as social services -- argue this moment is proof that the US doesn't>need more police. They say if cities focused on the root causes of crime, like poverty, substance abuse and disparities in criminal justice, there wouldn't be as much need for police.

It's too soon to know for sure why rates of violent crime are spiking, criminologists say. But to make cities safer and earn back the public's trust, they agree that officials will need to retool police in some capacity -- and not by adding more officers.

Why crime is rising

Crime is a symptom of summertime. The combination of heat, no school, outdoor hangouts and interpersonal conflict mean cities often see their highest rates of crime in the warmest months.

But this summer is a different beast.

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist who teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said it's "reasonably clear" that crime is climbing at least partially due to cities reopening and activities resuming.

Rosenfeld recently published research that found the homicide rate in large US cities plunged in March, April and May compared to the previous year. He said he's almost certain that coronavirus lockdowns caused homicides to fall.

Police work a crime scene in Brooklyn where a 1-year-old boy was killed July 13 when gunfire erupted at a family picnic.

His analysis of data for June isn't complete, but he said the uptick in crime is clear. He said it's highly likely that widespread social unrest in response to George Floyd's death and other police violence is contributing to an increase in violent crime.

Rosenfeld believes the protests have stoked existing tensions between police and the communities they serve. When people don't trust police or fear their response if they call for help, they won't contact them when crimes occur or cooperate with investigators.

The pandemic, which has disproportionately sickened and killed Black Americans, and the Black Lives Matter protests have hit a raw nerve among people of color, said Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens' Crime Commission of New York City. This has fueled distrust of institutions, including police, and led to a "crisis of police legitimacy," he said.

And when people don't trust the police, Rosenfeld said, they're more likely to take matters in their own hands and settle disputes on their own.

Defunding police would boost crime rates, some say

Some elected officials say that employing fewer police on the streets would only give criminals a leg up.

US Sen. Ted Cruz has repeatedly come out against cutting police budgets, a move he says would "decimate" vulnerable communities. Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said defunding police "would be great for robbers and rapists," a sentiment President Trump also tweeted.

Powerful police unions like the the New York Police Benevolent Association have deflected blame for rising crime and pointed fingers instead at city officials.

In a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio and other New York leaders, PBA President Patrick Lynch said city officials "created an atmosphere of hatred and disrespect toward police officers and criminals are taking full advantage."

When the New York Attorney General issued guidelines for an overhaul of the NYPD, Lynch called them "reheated proposals that have been part of the anti-police agenda for decades." He also criticized cuts to the NYPD's budget, and in a statement implied that fewer officers on streets would cause crime to spike.

NYPD Chief of Department Terance Monahan recently said that "anti-police rhetoric" has "basically destroyed morale" among his officers.

"Our cops are unsure what to do," Monahan told the Police Executive Research Forum last month. "They think there's no reason to do any quality-of-life enforcement."