Recently criminal justice observers have been puzzled by the fact that homicide rates are sharply increasing across the country, while most other crime categories are stable or trending slightly downward. What is causing the nation’s homicide spikes?
The answer, according to University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Paul Cassell, appears to be declines in some forms of policing in the wake of anti-police protests. Cassell says this “Minneapolis Effect,” similar to an earlier “Ferguson Effect,” is leading to increased shootings across the country. These spikes in shooting crimes raise cautions about “defunding” the police in ways that might reduce proactive policing that is important in preventing gun violence.
“My research suggests that as a result of de-policing during June and July 2020, approximately 710 additional victims were murdered and more than 2,800 victims were shot because of redeployment of law enforcement away from proactive policing,” Cassell says.
His paper, titled “Explaining the Recent Homicide Spikes in U.S. Cities: The ‘Minneapolis Effect’ and the Decline in Proactive Policing,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of The Federal Sentencing Reporter.
(Read an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal outlining the research here).
Homicide spikes beginning in late May
Recently gun violence – including homicides – have dramatically increased, with shooting skyrocketing in certain neighborhoods in cities from New York and Philadelphia to Milwaukee and Los Angeles. A recent survey found, for example, that in June homicides increased 37% (compared to 2019) in a sample of cities across the country. In July huge increases were reported in a number of cities. In Chicago, for example, more than double the number of people were killed in July 2020 as the year before—the most violent month in the nation’s “Second City” in 28 years. While homicides and shootings increased around the country, most other crime categories did not. A careful analysis of the homicide and shooting increases shows that did not begin with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but rather began around late May, when anti-police protests followed in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department.
Factors that do not explain the homicide spikes
Cassell reviews possible reasons for the homicide spikes. They are not explained by violence during protests, nor are they attributable to normal seasonal variation. The COVID-19 pandemic also does not appear to be a triggering cause, as the homicide spikes began well after social distancing began in this country and stay at home orders were beginning to be relaxed.
A decline in proactive policing
The best explanation for the homicide spikes around the country, says Cassell, is a Minneapolis Effect. Similar to an earlier Ferguson Effect in the wake of the police protests originating in Ferguson, Missouri, the Minneapolis Effect is a decline in law enforcement stemming from anti-police protests. Initially, the Minneapolis Effect arose from redeployment of law enforcement officers to prevent violence during the protests. But even as protests began to wane, policing had uniquely declined following the start of the protests. Cassell examining five cities in detail – Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and New York City – explaining how policing (and particularly “proactive” policing, such as street stops and similar measures) appear to have declined in the wake of the protests. Cassel finds an strong analogy between the current homicides spikes occurring around the country and the 2016 Chicago homicide spike, drawing on an earlier research paper that he published finding a reduction in streets stops in Chicago in late 2015 triggered Chicago’s ensuing homicide spile.
An Increase in shooting victims
Cassell concludes that it is reasonable to estimate that, as a result of reduced policing during June and July 2020, approximately 710 additional victims were murdered and more than 2,800 victims were shot. A disproportionate number of the victims are Black and Brown, often living in disadvantaged and low-income communities. Cassellemphasizes that his estimate relies on various assumptions, and concludes that further research on the issues surrounding the homicide spikes should be an urgent priority.
Cassell concludes: “While these estimates are stated in the cold precision of an economic calculation, it must be remembered that behind these grim numbers lies a tremendous toll in human suffering—lives lost, futures destroyed, and families left grieving. Understanding the nation’s recent—and on-going—homicide spikes requires urgent attention. And even more urgently, the nation needs to consider all possible responses to this tragedy, including responses that involve increased and proactive law enforcement efforts directed at combatting gun violence.”