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The Justice Department Paints Violent Crime With Too Broad a Brush

The Justice Department finally recognized that crime is a local issue. But its new plan still gets urban crime wrong.

August 9, 2017

Cross-posted on HuffPost

This summer, the Justice Department unveiled a new program, the National Public Safety Partnership (PSP), aimed at reducing violent crime in 12 cities. According to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, this initiative — which expands on a prior Justice Department pilot program — would help communities suffering from violent crime by offering local law enforcement “data-driven, evidence-based strategies” and federal resources to reduce gun crimes, drug trafficking, and gang violence. The cities picked were Birmingham, Indianapolis, Memphis, Toledo, Baton Rouge, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Houston, Jackson, Kansas City, Lansing, and Springfield, Ill.

“This spike in violent crime is not happening in every neighborhood or city,” Sessions said, “but the trend is real and should concern us all. It must not continue.”

Sessions’ sudden realization that crime is a local problem, in need of local solutions, is a welcome break from the Trump administration’s alarmist narrative of a new national crime wave. But his proposal shows a misunderstanding of the nature and complexity of violent crime in America’s cities.

The category of “violent crime” includes a number of offenses that may or may not be related to gangs, guns, or drugs. And violent offenses often rise and fall independently of each other. For example, murder rates rose slightly in Dallas and San Francisco last year, even while rates of overall crime fell in those cities. In Houston, the murder rate decreased over the same period while rates of other violent crimes — robbery and assault — actually rose.

Meanwhile, Chicago and Baltimore, both extreme outliers, are grappling with highly localized outbreaks of homicide, with Chicago alone accounting for more than 55 percent of the increase in urban murders last year.

This type of variation is exactly what we would expect if local factors, rather than a shared national experience, were driving recent crime trends. The Justice Department is right to single out a few cities for special attention.

But their initiative fails to address the cities perhaps most in need of assistance, and might miss some of the underlying factors driving crime. Of the cities that have struggled the most with violent crime in the last two years — Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. — none were selected for this round of the Public Safety Partnership. Chicago received help under the PSP’s predecessor initiative, the “Violence Reduction Network,” but in light of the city’s recent troubles, Chicago is overdue for a reevaluation and renewed attention. And Baltimore has shown interest in its being considered for the program’s next round of funding. But the failure to immediately provide new help to these cities is a glaring omission for an administration that consistently uses these outliers to claim spiraling urban violence.

Perhaps Sessions plans to help big cities with the highest rates of violent crime? While two such places do make the list — Memphis (1,803 violent crimes per 100,000 residents) and Houston (982 per 100,000) — the program omits others with relatively high levels of violence. Detroit, Nashville, and Washington, D.C., all have violent crime rates that exceed Houston’s, to say nothing of Baltimore and Chicago. While some of these cities received assistance under previous DOJ initiatives, all could benefit from additional resources.

Nor does Sessions’ list seem designed to help cities that saw the greatest rise in violence last year. Memphis, where violent crime and murder rates both rose significantly last year, is a sensible pick. But Houston’s murder rate actually fell last year with other crimes, such as assault, increasingly only modestly. Here too, Baltimore and Chicago, whose violent crime rates rose last year by 18.6 and 16.5 percent respectively, seem like better candidates. As do San Antonio (up 24.3 percent), Los Angeles (13.6), Dallas (10.9), and Charlotte (7.5). If Sessions hopes to focus on cities struggling with violence spawned by guns, gangs, and drugs, he’s picked strange places to start.

Additionally, focusing law enforcement resources on a few big cities may only solve part of the problem. There’s reason to believe that locally spiking crime rates may be driven, at least in part, by systemic socioeconomic disadvantage.

In Baltimore and Chicago, for example, rates of poverty and unemployment have far exceeded the national average for the last decade, by around 55 percent and 75 percent respectively in both cities. Especially in Chicago, poverty appears closely correlated with crime rates.

The city’s legacy of segregation may also be to blame. Pervasive redlining, a lending practice where local banks and at times the federal government refused to insure home loans in predominantly black neighborhoods, trapped people of color in Chicago’s poorest areas, preventing them from sharing in the growing national economy that helped drive down crime rates nationally since 1990. Baltimore has a similar sad history.

That said, especially if the program expands to other, more troubled cities, there’s reason to believe that the Public Safety Partnership is a step toward strengthening local, data-driven crime strategies. The program’s predecessor recorded real victories in 2015, its first year of operation, by using federal guidance to help craft local solutions. If Sessions’ reboot follows a similar model, it could help address gaps in policing that might explain why some crime rates seem to be moving in different directions. In Houston, for example, where murder is down despite a rise in other violent crimes, police may have managed to contain gun violence, which accounted for more than 70 percent of national murders in 2015, while being unable to address other types of violence. More resources could bridge that gap.

Of course, there’s one last reason crime rates may be rising in some cities, especially in Baltimore and Chicago: an apparent breakdown of trust between police and communities they serve. Sessions’ Justice Department is so far not doing much to help improve the situation.

Just last week, the DOJ sent a letter to four “sanctuary cities” — including Baltimore — warning that they will not be eligible for Public Safety Partnership funds unless they can show that their police departments are fully cooperating with federal immigration officials. Chicago received a similar warning about a different grant earlier in the year, and as a result sued the DOJ on Monday. Law enforcement officials like Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck have pushed back on the administration’s crackdown on sanctuary cities, saying that “we all suffer” without cooperation and trust between police and immigrants.

Sessions has also been skeptical of police reform, despite the fact that police leaders in Baltimore and Chicago believe that changes, by consent decree or otherwise, would help them regain citizens’ trust and strengthen vital relationships, making their cities far safer in the long run.

By offering targeted assistance to troubled communities, Sessions may be moving toward solutions and beyond alarmist, fact-free rhetoric that has often characterized the Trump administration. But glaring omissions in this first round of local partnerships, and inappropriate threats to cities who were left off the list, suggest that there is much room for progress.

(Image: Gage Skidmore