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A Most Violent Year

What the left and right got wrong about crime in 2015.

Was 2015 the year of the Ferguson Effect? Conservatives scream yes, progressives shout back no. Let’s step away from the din to examine whether all this yelling is getting us anywhere, and whether we’ve missed some useful explanations and effective policies that have been under our noses this whole time.

Last May, Heather Mac Donald of the conservative Manhattan Institute penned a controversial piece arguing that recent upticks in violence might signal a new national crime wave. Like other conservative commentators, Mac Donald identified activists and the media as culprits, arguing that public criticism of police discouraged them from aggressive “broken windows” strategies and emboldened criminals to do their worst – the so-called Ferguson Effect.

Mac Donald was wrong on several counts. First, she initially linked gun violence and homicide to crime overall, without offering evidence for doing so. Second, any criminologist will tell you that policing is only one factor of many in determining rates of violence. And third, the best and most thorough examination of “broken windows” policing recently revealed that when narrowly focused on solving problems in partnership with the community, broken windows is successful – when it isn’t, then not so much.

Progressives did not take these charges lying down. Many pushed back, asserting there was simply no evidence of a spike in violent crime. One widely cited report by the progressive Brennan Center for Justice admitted that homicide in 25 of the nation’s largest cities jumped 14.6% in 2015, but argued that the current rate is near historic lows, that rates vary widely and that any increases are localized and not part of a national trend. Moreover, they asserted that any increase was due to “root causes,” i.e. poverty, unemployment, and other structural factors, not policing.

The Brennan Center was also mistaken in a number of ways. First, while it is true that violence remains historically low (and that crime overall continues to fall), a 14.6% national spike in murder would be the largest single-year increase since at least 1960. Furthermore, while local rates of violence often fluctuate, national rates are more stable, and the Brennan Center’s own data shows that murder is up in 18 of 25 of the nation’s largest cities. As for “root causes,” there is little evidence of a direct connection between violence and structural factors like poverty and unemployment. And none of those factors changed significantly last year, so they can hardly explain the surge of violence.

To summarize, the increase in homicides appears real, but there is no broader national crime wave. It is unclear what is driving the problem, but my own hunch – and it is still just a hunch at this point – involves a criminological phenomenon called legal cynicism. Multiple studies have demonstrated that, controlling for other factors, when communities view the police and criminal justice system as illegitimate, they become more violent. When people believe the system is unwilling or unable to help them, they are more likely to take the law into their own hands, creating the cycles of violent retribution that were chronicled so vividly last year in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside.

Cynicism about the law might also explain why the biggest homicide spikes in 2015 occurred in places like St. Louis, Baltimore, and Milwaukee, where there was unrest after controversial uses of police force, and why Boston, with its recent history of positive police and community collaboration, had the largest single decrease in homicide of any large city.

In order to address cynicism in the streets, we have to address cynicism in our public conversation about guns, crime, and punishment. Violence can fracture a community, but so can violent, partisan, absolutist rhetoric on television, in print, and on social media.

President Obama should be commended for trying to do something, anything, on gun control, but last week he neglected a number of non-ideological solutions to violence that can be implemented now without a lot of new money or new laws. Focused deterrence programs like the original Operation Ceasefire in Boston have successfully brought law enforcement and communities together to fight gun violence. Cognitive behavioral therapy approaches like Becoming a Man in Chicago have a record of preventing violence among at-risk youth. And, as Leovy writes, devoting more attention and resources to the investigation and prosecution of homicide would send a clear signal, alongside police and criminal justice reforms, that black lives truly do matter.

Why don’t these successful approaches get more support? Unfortunately, we tend to look past practical solutions when they lie between the political fault lines and don’t provide fodder for our next partisan debate. In the coming year, let’s move past our pre-approved talking points and get down to the business of saving lives, because peace in our streets has no political affiliation.

Thomas Abt served as Deputy Secretary for Public Safety for the State of New York from 2013-2014, Chief of Staff to the U.S Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs from 2009-2013, and is currently a Senior Research Fellow with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he teaches and studies evidence-informed violence reduction strategies.