Murders Are Rising the Most in a Few Isolated Precincts of Major Cities
A wave of murders in US cities that began last year continues through 2021, and a growing body of research is showing a pattern behind the rise: it has been concentrated in relatively few poor neighborhoods, typically black and Spanish, with an ongoing history of violence .
When elected officials and communities look for solutions, it is important to recognize this geographic reality, say social scientists and police officers who investigated the wave of murders. Police and other city authorities need to focus their efforts on some areas that missed the urban renaissance of the past two decades when their civic residents fled. Controversy over policing compounded matters after the conviction of Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, for the murder of George Floyd, a black man. “The problem doesn’t go away,” said Jens Ludwig, director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab. “People in my world are very nervous about the summer of 2021.”
The number of homicides rose 9.1% in New York and 22% in Chicago this year, after rising double digits in both countries and many other cities over the past year. Mr Ludwig estimates that nearly three-quarters of the 2020 murder attacks in Chicago were concentrated in a group of eight of the city’s 25 police districts, mostly on the mostly black south side of the city and mostly on the Hispanic west side.
Similar patterns have surfaced elsewhere. In New York, the number of homicides rose 47% in 2020 and was concentrated in a neighborhood of Brooklyn with a long history of violence, including Brownsville, Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant. It also hit the southern Bronx and the Harlem portion of Manhattan, said Michael LiPetri, New York City Police Department’s chief for crime-fighting strategies.
In St. Louis, six of 76 neighborhoods that make up 7% of the city’s population accounted for half of the 2020 rise in murder from 194 to 264, said Richard Rosenfeld, a forensic researcher at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. They were mostly minorities and poor, he said. In Philadelphia, most of the increase in shootings and murders was concentrated in areas northeast and southwest of the city center, locations that have long been plagued by violence. This comes from data compiled by David Abrams, a forensic researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Ludwig describes the pattern as a little-noticed new form of inequality – one of public safety. In 1985, he said, the most violent neighborhoods of Chicago had about twice as many murders per capita as safer ones. In recent years, that difference has widened to 16 to 1 in some places, making the problem an epidemic in some neighborhoods and barely on the radar in others.
“The increasing inequality of security means that people in the hardest hit areas have fewer and fewer allies who care,” he said.
Violent crime in American cities has decreased over the past 20 years. A number of factors led to the decline, including the decline in a national crack cocaine epidemic. Some places gentrified, attracted businesses and wealthier residents, while others lost people and became more isolated, separated and poor. In many of these areas, hospitals, schools, churches and businesses – the institutions that connect a place and create order – have been closed. With the loss of this social and economic infrastructure, they were vulnerable to gangs and violence.
When Covid-19 swept through American cities last year – with lockdowns closing schools and courts and restricting police – these neighborhoods faced a new wave of gun violence, gang activity and murder, researchers and police say.
Mistrust of the police in many parts of the city grew after the murder of Mr. Floyd, which made it even more difficult for the police to maintain order. In some places, police were reluctant to engage in a public backlash against their tactics and behavior, and residents were less willing to help with tips and information.
Mr Rosenfeld and Mr LiPetri said the problem may have worsened as police were dragged downtown from violent areas to monitor protests against the police and, in some cases, respond to riots and looting. “That is a sad irony,” said Mr. Rosenfeld.
Sheree Tribett from Chicago with a portrait of three sons and a nephew who were killed in shootings in their neighborhood.
Carlos Javier Ortiz for the Wall Street Journal
Researchers have shown that the economic and social fabric of neighborhoods is central to crime. Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist, describes cities as networks of neighborhoods, like archipelagos, linked by business, transport, and social ties. The islands most at risk are becoming islands that others rarely go in or out of, so they are largely connected to other deprived neighborhoods – a pattern he says is a strong predictor of the violence that is now re-emerging .
“This argument is proven,” said Mr Sampson in an interview. His 2012 book “The Great American City” documented a neighborhood effect on crime in Chicago. A second issue, due out next year, shows how “neighborhoods are the hubs of a network,” he said: while some have become centers of concentrated wealth in the modern city, others have become centers of economic and social ills .
Chicago is a case study in these patterns. Last year it led the nation in murders. As of May 2, this year another 195 had been recorded, 35 more than in the same period in 2020.
Researchers have shown that the economic and social fabric of neighborhoods is central to crime.
The country’s three largest cities – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – have seen their downtown cores revitalized over the past two decades, but redevelopment in New York and LA has continued and more smoothly. In Chicago, most of the investments went into the predominantly white and more affluent north side.
Clarence Glover, owner of Majestic Florist in Chatham on the south side, said the area was upscale and lined with black-owned businesses when he opened his business in 1984. Today his flower shop and large funeral home are among the last remaining blacks to own business. “We don’t have any more jobs for young people,” he said. “Young people are just out to rob and steal so they can get something for themselves.”
Many black families who have the opportunity to leave Chicago have done so. The city has lost nearly 300,000 black residents, or about a quarter of its black population, since 1990. Some predominantly black neighborhoods have lost around half of their population. In 1990, the three cities had a similar number of poor and violent neighborhoods, according to Ludwig’s crime lab. Today the most polluted communities in Chicago are poorer and more violent than the other two cities.
One difference is gun laws, said Brendan Deenihan, head of the Chicago Police Department’s detective agency. He said New York and California are moving faster to mandatory minimum gun crime sentences in an attempt to get guns off the streets and stabilize neighborhoods.
Many of the residents who moved out were best equipped to curb bad behavior, said Lance Williams, professor of urban community studies at Northeastern Illinois University. “Someone’s grandmother who could go outside and say, ‘Stop that …’. Or someone’s brother who had a reputation for being tough and could say, ‘Hey, you, go home,’ ”said Prof. Williams, a former outreach associate. “There’s no such thing as’ Hey! ‘ no more.”
Sheree Tribett, 58, left the South Side neighborhood near Mr. Glover’s flower shop in 2013 and moved to a nearby suburb after two of her sons and a nephew were killed in separate shootings within blocks of each other. Their oldest son, Joe Brooks, also moved out but continued to work in a grocery store on the family’s old block.
34-year-old Mr. Brooks was killed by gunfire from a passing SUV this past Memorial Day weekend. Arrests were not made in any of the four murders.
Mrs. Tribett has moved back to town but never goes to her old neighborhood. She said it was heartbreaking that Joe still worked there. “He loved the neighborhood,” she said. “He loved his friends too. He always said he was good because he was the big brother. “
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