In the past two weeks, four Washington, D.C., teenagers have died violently , including a mass shooting at a Juneteenth event in the bustling U Street Corridor that wounded a police officer, two civilians, and claimed the life of a 15-year-old boy , who cried out for his mother in his final moments. In the nation’s capital and across the country, Americans are getting too used to unthinkable tragedies like these. It’s time to change course to return peace and safety to our communities.
From 2019 to 2020, murders rose roughly 30% , the single largest year-to-year increase in murders in our nation’s history, and 44% between 2019 and 2021. D.C., which already had a higher murder rate than many other cities, has still seen a rapid climb in violent crime. Murders rose 20% in 2020 from 2019, a trend that has continued into 2022 . Aggravated assaults, carjackings, and other categories of violent crime have also shot up dramatically in the past two years. Cities, such as Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., have seen carjackings double, triple, and even quadruple from 2019 to 2021.
While much of the focus on crime has turned to large urban areas, a recent report from the Wall Street Journal shows homicide rates in rural jurisdictions rose 25% in 2020. Communities big and small, conservative and liberal, are experiencing pain, trauma, and lawlessness.
Recent efforts to increase transparency, accountability, and quality of policing were unfortunately often coupled with misguided demands to “defund” the police. These run counter to improving the profession and increasing safety in the communities hit the hardest by violent crime.
Study after study shows increasing the quantity, quality, and education level of officers lessens crime , decreases unnecessary use of force , and allows for more effective policing practices to be implemented . And polling shows people across all racial demographics do not believe spending on police should be decreased . We must come together and realize that we cannot expect to hire and retain enough quality officers when we strip their funding.
We also need to refocus law enforcement attention and resources on solving and preventing serious crime, as well as building better relationships with communities. Police today are tasked with far too much outside these core missions. Little time is spent focusing on violent crime, while much of their work is dedicated to noncriminal calls, traffic-related incidents, and arrests for lower-level offenses. For example, around 13% of the over 10 million arrests in 2019 were for simple drug possession . Many police departments also rely on fines, fees, and civil forfeitures for significant portions of their budgets that oftentimes require police to expend significant resources acquiring these funding streams, leaving less time for more important matters.
This mission creep appears to be having significant implications for solving crime. In 1976, homicide clearance rates (generally means arresting a suspect) were around 82%. Today they are around 50% and nonfatal shooting rates are roughly half that . Many policymakers have decided to focus resources on “tough on crime” sentencing measures to bring violent crime down. Not only does a large body of evidence show these policies are poor at increasing public safety, but with clearance rates this low, how are we supposed to reduce crime by focusing on ineffective back-end policies that ignore prevention and solving cases in the first place?
Our communities deserve justice, and we need police focusing on serious crime and implementing strategies that actually work. Policymakers would be wise to look at the success Dallas has had recently in reducing violent crime with a highly focused approach in lieu of more general nontargeted policing strategies that often negatively and disproportionately affect minority communities with little to no impact on public safety.
Dallas has implemented a “ Violence Crime Reduction Plan ” that focuses law enforcement resources on violent crime “hot spots” and only the most serious offenses. Additionally, the city is partnering with community leaders to provide support services to individuals who are at high risk of being a victim or actor of violent crime, as well as dealing with issues of urban blight, such as lighting and vacant lots, and enforcing code regulations on unsafe apartment complexes to limit their use as criminal hotbeds. So far, the city’s homicide rate dropped by 13% from 2020-2021 , while arrests decreased by 11% during that period. Dallas shows that focusing resources on the highest risk areas and individuals can make communities safer and limit unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system.
Dallas appears to have a unified vision between the mayor, city council, and police chief , which has allowed their strategy to be effectively implemented. This, sadly, is not true in many other jurisdictions. The numbers don’t lie: Policymakers and policy implementers were woefully ill-prepared or unwilling to solve and prevent serious crimes over the past couple of years. Mostly, what we see is finger-pointing and grandstanding — spinning stats and figures to justify previously held positions. It’s time for our leaders and communities to set aside differences and tackle this problem with evidence-based solutions like our lives depend on it because they actually do.
Greg Glod is an Americans for Prosperity fellow focused on public safety and criminal justice reform.