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Why is the murder rate falling?

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Rising homicide rates have been a central theme in American politics in recent years. That could change. The New York Times reported that a new survey of 30 U.S. cities shows a “near 10% drop in homicides” so far this year. Violent crime is still higher than before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, but crime experts are cautiously optimistic. “I would call the result encouraging,” said Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. But he added that “we still have a way to go”.

Of the 30 cities analyzed, CNN reported, 20 saw a decrease in homicides and 10 saw an increase. There were also fewer gun attacks but more car thefts than during the same period in 2022. Overall, the study authors concluded that “levels of nearly all offenses are lower or have changed little” from a year ago.

The latest report confirms other recent findings that the peak in pandemic-era homicides is beginning to subside. “Factors such as an easing of the pandemic and political unrest may play an important role,” reported The Christian Science Monitor. And it comes “in the midst of a broader evolution of policing” following the 2020 George Floyd protests. “It’s really about putting officers in positions where we’re not forcing them to be opponents,” said Georgia State University’s Thaddeus Johnson. Why are the murder rates falling? And is that trend sustainable?

Table of Contents

What do the commentators say?

“Explaining the trend is much more difficult than describing it,” Jeff Asher wrote to The Atlantic. The increase in homicides in the pandemic era has been a national trend, and the apparent decline this year also appears to be widespread, “suggesting that national explanations will be more compelling than local anecdotes.” Some cities used Covid relief money to hire more police officers, and the end of the pandemic emergency may have contributed to a sense of normalcy. But it’s too early to celebrate. The downtrend may “ultimately turn out to be a one-year anomaly.”

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Some experts were skeptical that Covid had much to do with the homicide spike, wrote German Lopez for The New York Times. After all, “other countries did not see a major increase in homicides during the pandemic”. Maybe, but it’s also true that America is awash in guns compared to peer countries, putting Americans “at greater risk of violence when much of society is turned upside down.” However, experts warn that it is not clear exactly why the murder rate is falling. “The lack of certainty is typical in discussions about crime.”

Republican politicians have blamed legal reform and progressive prosecutors for the crime spike. Michael P. Jacobson and Sana Khan wrote for Governing that their analysis suggests that “penal reforms have not led to violence in the wake of Covid-19.” Lawmakers should focus on long-term trends rather than short-term increases or decreases in crime and “instead of dwelling on anecdotal stories and fear, policymakers should move towards evidence-based solutions.”

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What’s next?

The murder rate has generally fallen, but the mass murder rate has risen. “This year’s unrelenting bloodshed in the US has led to the grimmest milestones – the deadliest six months of mass killings on record since at least 2006,” The Guardian reported. At the end of June, there were 28 mass shootings in the United States with 140 victims. “We used to say there were two to three dozen a year,” says James Alan Fox of Northeastern University. “The fact that there are 28 in half a year is a staggering statistic.” Of the 28 mass killings — an event that killed four or more people — 27 involved guns.

There’s another problem: The homicide rate may be declining, but the number of unsolved homicides is at a “record high,” NPR reported. Less than half of US homicides were “caught up” by detectives in 2020 — a number that has been declining for decades. In some major cities, the resolution rate drops below 40%. (Germany, meanwhile, solves more than 90% of its murders.) That can create a terrible feedback loop. Some witnesses don’t believe detectives can solve crimes, so they won’t help the police solve crimes. “It undermines confidence in the police,” said one expert. “And it’s a vicious circle.”

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