For today’s Critical Issues report, PERF spoke with police officials from several cities about recent spikes in their crime rates.
- Violent crime is increasing sharply in some cities. In New York City, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee, crimes are at high points going back years.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has been a key factor in rising crime, for several reasons. Jurisdictions released many offenders in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in jails. And courts in many places have been closed. That has led to a feeling among offenders that they can commit crimes with impunity. In addition, police in some cities are less proactive in their enforcement, in order to avoid interactions with the public that could spread the virus.
- George Floyd-related demonstrations have been another factor. Police officers who would normally spend their time investigating violent crime have been assigned to demonstrations.
- The mood in some departments is grim. Officers are discouraged when they are blamed for incidents that occurred in other cities, and they feel abandoned by elected officials. Many officers in Milwaukee are retiring early.
NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan:
We’re Seeing Increases in Crime Like We Haven’t Seen in a Long Time
For the first three weeks of June, we haven’t seen shooting numbers like this for a long time. In the last week, we’ve had 53 shooting incidents and 72 people shot. We have to go back to the week of July 4th in 2012 for a week like that.
For us, these increases started last year with bail reform, which emptied out Rikers. It increased with the start of COVID, when they released more people out of Rikers, taking its population down to the lowest level since the 1950s. Then came the George Floyd incident, the demonstrations, and the anti-police rhetoric that’s going on everywhere and has basically destroyed morale. It’s set off a feeling on the streets right now that it’s okay to carry a gun, settle old disputes, and start shooting at one another. We’re seeing people get sprayed at parties. Fireworks are also out of control throughout the city, and they’re masking the sounds of gunfire.
Our cops are unsure what to do. They think there’s no reason to do any quality-of-life enforcement.
We’re finally going to have a live Compstat meeting this week, for the first time since the start of COVID. We’re going to discuss these issues and see how we can adjust the way we police, because the amount of violence we’re seeing is unacceptable.
Working with prosecutors, we looked at 1,200 people on out of the streets right now who are indicted on a gun charge, and another 800 who have been arrested for gun charges but have not been indicted yet because courts are closed.
So there has been this perfect storm that’s swirled around us.
Chuck Wexler: Can you make a direct connection between the people getting out of Rikers and the increase in crime?
Chief Monahan: When it comes to total crime, yes. 20% have been rearrested after being let out of Rikers. We can’t make the same connection on violent crime. But we’re seeing a large uptick of parolees involved on either end of the gun, as either the shooter or the victim.
There’s a feeling that you’re not going to go to jail. There’s a feeling on the streets right now that if you fight a cop and get it on video, you’re going to have a payday. So there’s a lot circulating through the agency right now.
Wexler: How do you motivate people in this environment?
Chief Monahan: You’ve got to be out there speaking to them. Get your message out. Remind them why they came on this job. You have to be willing to talk about the issues that they’re facing, and defend them publicly so that they know that someone has their back.
Hopefully we can challenge some of our elected officials to stand up and say, “Hey, we need the police.” We’re starting to get some support, but we need this national opinion of negativity toward police to come to an end.
Wexler: Why do you think people might be more willing to carry a gun now?
Chief Monahan: There’s an opinion out there that the cops aren’t going to stop them. There’s a feeling on the street that it’s safe to carry a gun, and even if you get caught with a gun, you’re not going to go to prison. That’s a narrative we have to work very hard to change.
Indianapolis Metropolitan Assistant Chief Chris Bailey:
The Justice System Isn’t Providing Accountability
We’re in the midst of an almost six-year increase in homicides. Last year we had a little bit of a reprieve – the number went down slightly – but it has ticked back up significantly this year. It really started in November and December of last year, and in continued in January and February. At the height of our COVID response, the crime numbers kind of levelled out, but in May, it blew up. As far as I can tell, there’s only one other time that we’ve had 25 homicides in one month, in November 2017. Going back to the inception of our combined police department in 2007, we haven’t seen any numbers like that. This month we’re right back where we were last year.
For a period of time, our nonfatal shooting victims and incidents were down, but they have now surpassed where we were last year at this time. We’ve had 217 incidents so far this year, compared to 200 last year, and in 2016 we were in the 180s. So gun crime has been continuously rising in our city.
Indiana is a place where people love their guns, and our gun recoveries have gone up over the last several years. We had 3,500 last year. Since the government has reopened in our city, one of our busiest places is our citizen services office where we process state gun permits. Since we reopened last week, we’ve probably processed over 1,500 people waiting to get a gun permit.
So there’s a feeling that it’s okay to carry a gun and it’s okay to fire it and our police officers aren’t going to be able to do anything about it. Some of that has to do with our response to COVID. But it’s the atmosphere that we find ourselves in right now.
Wexler: What’s driving this increase?
Asst. Chief Bailey: A lot of it is related to drug trafficking. We’ve had several simple disputes that have ended in gunfire. We’ve had several incidents where people have been shot at large mass gatherings. We had a party over the weekend at an Airbnb that ended up with several people shot. We had an 8-year-old killed by random gunfire. We had a 16-year-old killed while in the car with her mom.
During COVID, we really slowed down our investigations through our Crime Gun Intelligence Center and our probation interventions, and I think we’re paying for a lot of that right now.
Wexler: What is your strategy going forward?
Asst. Chief Bailey: We initiated a multi-agency task force last year through our Crime Gun Intelligence Center that brings together ATF, our prosecutor’s office, and other regional partners. They’ve been doing a lot of good work. We have a focused approach on the people that we know have a propensity for violence. We get together every two weeks and talk about our nonfatal shooting victims.
But even when we try to do this focused approach on the people we know are trigger-pullers, we’re still outnumbered by them. I don’t think there’s a sense of accountability in our criminal justice system right now. We have a bond system in place where the judge doesn’t look at criminal history when deciding bail, so I don’t think there’s any accountability.
Our criminal justice system has been failing for many years. We’re dealing with kids who have had no accountability at home, no accountability at school, no accountability in the juvenile justice system, and now they’re young adults and aren’t facing any accountability for their actions.
We understand all those systematic things that lead people to violence, and we’re not afraid to try to address those things. But we also have to address them in the here-and-now, and we’re not getting a lot of help from the other partners in our system. And there’s not a lot of stomach for some of the traditional law enforcement tools that have been used in the past to address these issues in our communities.
Milwaukee Inspector Leslie Thiele:
Officers Are Retiring Because They’re Demoralized
Our homicides are way up. We haven’t seen these numbers since 1991. We have 86 homicides this year, compared to 37 to this point last year, so we have a 132% increase. We’ve had an increase since the fall, but it has increased immensely over the last couple of months. We had a couple mass shootings, but a lot of shootings tend to be related to drugs or silly disputes. We’ve had a big increase in domestic violence shootings.
We’re basically not getting any support from our Common Council or our Fire and Police Commissioners. They have talked about potentially cutting more of our budget. The attrition rate is very high the last couple years, and it’s going to continue this year. We have had a lot of people come forward and basically say they’ve had enough and retire. We’ve had younger officers who have been on for a year to 10 years, and have resigned because they’re not willing to put their families through any news stories that would come out if they were involved in anything. It has been difficult, and morale is low.
But we’re doing the best we can. Our officers are still out there taking their assignments, and some are still trying to be proactive. But, overall, I think the feeling is that they’ll do what they have to do but proactive policing is minimal right now.
Milwaukee Inspector Terrence Gordon:
Crime Is High Because Officers Don’t Have Time to Fight It
Toward the end of last year, we saw an increase in people getting killed over marijuana. This year, pre-COVID and toward the beginning of COVID, we saw a big spike in intimate partner and family violence. In the past month or so, it’s been driven by disputes. So it’s a combination of factors.
I think the fact that police departments in major cities are distracted right now is a contributing factor everywhere. It is definitely an issue here. Our department is distracted with politics, inquiries, demonstrations, everything you can imagine except serving the neighborhoods we come to work to serve.
Morale is terrible. But people don’t have low morale because of something the chief did; it’s because they’re afraid that nobody in this community is going to stand up for them. In 25 years, I’ve never seen it like this. I never thought that I’d see the day where a Milwaukee police officer would withdraw from the community they swore to serve. But I can see it beginning to happen right now, and it’s just terrible, because on the other side of all these crimes are victims.
I grew up during the crack wars in Milwaukee, but there is a wildness out there that I have not experienced in my city before. There are bullets flying everywhere right now.
Wexler: How are you planning to navigate through this?
Inspector Gordon: We honestly think that if we had time to do our jobs, we could get a handle on it. We haven’t stopped doing our shoot reviews every week, but our detectives were on the demonstration lines with riot helmets and batons for two weeks. Our police officers who would normally be on patrol were also on the line. I really think that if the city got back to doing what we’re elected and appointed to do, we could get a handle on this. I don’t think we need a new strategy. I just think we need time to do our jobs.
Las Vegas Metropolitan Captain James LaRochelle:
We’re Trying to Maintain Our Great Records for 2018-19, But It’s Difficult
We had a couple very, very good years here in 2018 and 2019. We also started off this year well, with a 30% reduction in homicides at one point, partly because we pushed our headquarters detectives out to the area commands 4 or 5 years ago to put them closer to the community. Sheriff Lombardo implemented a major case protocol for some of our murders and other high-end crimes that involved Strip properties. That went into effect last year about this time, and we’ve implemented it 20 times over the past year. We’re 20 for 20 in solving crimes where we had no suspect information to start. That also improved the next layer of detectives, who were assigned to some of our shootings.
We had two years in a row of solving about 90% of our homicides, and Sheriff Lombardo wanted to push that focus to shootings this year. We were driving down those numbers and improving the rate at which we solved them.
So we were having a good year, and then COVID hit. During COVID our numbers fluctuated in different ways. Our domestic violence calls went up. Knife attacks and firearms were bouncing up and down.
Then, about three weeks ago, we had a really bad week, with 11 murders in 10 days. Some of those were domestic violence-related. Our gang murders are about 22% of our homicides, and our rate of solving those is a bit lower. At one point in April we had solved 100% of our murders, and now we’re at about 80%.
Our numbers are really changing week to week, because different variables keep getting added into the equation – COVID, protests, potentially some morale issues. We moved cops to the protests from patrol and kept detectives focused on detective work. Our Violent Crime Initiative teams, which we usually put in our most challenged neighborhoods, have been pulled to the protest line.
We are seeing an uptick in violence here just recently. In the last month we were up 34% in robbery. Robbery needs a viable victim, viable location, and viable suspect, and, as Las Vegas has opened up, that becomes available.
We’ve seen a significant decrease in officer-initiated activity over the past month. Our person stops are down 28% and our car stops are down 32%. That speaks to how many patrol officers are attending to protests.
We’re still slightly down in violent crime year-to-date, but lately we are seeing an uptick and it is a concern.
The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.
PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.