From The Atlantic:
Even before the recent mass shootings, violent crime was surging to its highest rate in 30 years. Patrick Sharkey illuminates what’s happening.
Staff writer at The Atlantic
Americans are experiencing a crime wave unlike anything we’ve seen this century. After decades of decline, shootings have surged in the past few years. In 2020, gun deaths reached their highest point in U.S. history in the midst of a pandemic. In 2021, although researchers can’t yet say anything definite about overall crime, shooting incidents appear to be on the rise in many places. …
Why crime rises and falls is a devilishly complicated question. Few people have thought more deeply about it than Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at Princeton University. While others reach for easy solutions and simplistic slogans, Sharkey embraces complexity and uncertainty. In his 2018 book, Uneasy Peace, Sharkey argued that intensive and often aggressive policing and incarceration policies probably helped reduce crime in the past few decades, to the great benefit of low-income neighborhoods. But rather than glorify these policies, he argued that often they have involved brutal policing strategies that could provoke a backlash among the public—hence the “uneasy” nature of the peace.
This thesis has proved doubly prescient in the past year. Sharkey anticipated both the summer of anti-police protests and the possibility that souring police-civilian relations would contribute to an increase in violent crime.
This week I spoke with Sharkey about his thoughts on the 2020 crime surge. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity; statistical context from a follow-up email is in italics.
Derek Thompson: What happened last year?
Patrick Sharkey: It was a huge surge of violence, and the most violent year of the century. We went through a long period where violence was steadily falling. There was a sharp decline in the 1990s and a more gradual decline since then. But right now we are in a period of rising violence. Since 2014, there has been a gradual increase.
What happened in 2014 to end the long decline in murder? Oh, yeah, Ferguson and BLM.
And then last year was a really terrible year across the whole country.
Thompson: The subtitle of your book Uneasy Peace is The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. Is it safe to say that the “great crime decline” has come to an end?
Sharkey: I would say it is very clearly paused. What remains to be seen is just how anomalous last year was. There’s a possibility that this was just a year when social life was completely destabilized in so many ways, and that resulted in a huge surge of violence that was temporary. That’s the hope.
Thompson: Where is crime rising today?
Sharkey: This is the analysis I’m doing right now. It’s always been true that violence is concentrated in a small number of communities. The current increase in crime is not evenly distributed, either. Most of the increase in violence is highly concentrated in neighborhoods that are segregated with high poverty.
In recent years, the word “segregated” has emerged as the prime euphemism for “black.” Under this usage, a 100% white community, if there are any left in modern America, is not segregated.
Many of these neighborhoods have experienced disinvestment for generations, for decades, and it has made them more vulnerable to violence.
The violence just falls from the sky onto these neighborhoods of color, which suffer from tragic dirt, but not onto integrated neighborhoods that are all white, which benefit from magic dirt.
Their public spaces have not been maintained. Their schools are underfunded.
“Underfunded” is a euphemism for “have students with low test scores.” E.g., “Washington D.C.’s underfunded schools.” Presumably, it means “underfunded relative to some theoretical amount of money, such as a gajillion dollars, that would be sufficient to raise these students’ test scores to average.”
… In research shared exclusively with The Atlantic after we spoke, Sharkey calculated that Chicago had 267 more fatal shootings in 2020 than the previous year.
Unlike The Atlantic, I came up with 274 more murders in Chicago in 2020 and in 103 other cities back on January 6 in Taki’s Magazine, which has no paywall.
… Thompson: Do we know if certain groups are suffering disproportionately from this crime increase? There have been several news reports of increased harassment and crime against Asian Americans, even before the Atlanta-area massacre. Is there anything your data can tell us about whether violence is increasing for some ethnic groups more than others?
Short answer: blacks.
Long answer: since the Racial Reckoning was declared, blacks have been shooting people, mostly other blacks, at a high rate.
Sharkey: My work looks most closely at where crime is happening, not at individual victims. But there are some things we think we know. Intimate-partner violence increased in 2020. So did hate crimes against Asians. But the overall demographics of victims is incredibly consistent over time. It’s young people of color, particularly young men of color. I don’t see anything yet to indicate that’s changed dramatically.
It’s all those dark-skinned Tamil Brahmin young men of color shooting each other in suburban New Jersey.
Whatever you do when discussing America’s murder problem, don’t mention the bl*cks. I sort of alluded to them but I think I got away with it.
Thompson: A lot of books and stories have been written about the great crime decline in the U.S. over the past 30 years. Now that this decline seems to be on pause, I wonder how you think some of these theories hold up, or don’t.
Sharkey: So much research and journalism on violence gravitates toward single-cause explanations. And that’s just misguided. We know that violence is incredibly complex, but we consistently seek out counterintuitive explanations. Take lead exposure, for example, which was a popular single-cause explanation for the decline in crime. Look, lead matters for crime. But you can’t show graphs of how violence rises and falls within the 2010s and say this is purely explained by a change in lead exposure from 20 years ago. That’s simplistic and incorrect.
I think that Kevin Drum’s idea that The Sixties were mostly just the unfortunate byproduct of lead poisoning is a fun theory. I went to school from K-12 in Sherman Oaks, CA, home to what then was the busiest freeway interchange in the world (101-405), so if anybody knows who I can sue to get my missing IQ points back. But crime rates mostly seem to go up and down depending on what Important People want. E.g., from the early 1990s onward, Important People were sick of all the murders in New York City, so New York eventually became the least homicidal big city in America.
Thompson: I want you to help me understand the relationship between poverty and crime, as you see it. There seems to be an association between high-poverty areas and high crime. But in the past 13 years, we’ve had two significant nationwide recessions. The first downturn coincided with falling crime. The second downturn coincided with the largest increase in crime in decades. What should that teach us?
Sharkey: I’ve argued against the idea that it’s about individual economic conditions. It’s very clear that economic recessions typically do not translate into more crime.
My argument is that in areas where communities go through periods of disinvestment and where institutions break down, people feel like they’re on their own. This creates conditions where violence becomes more likely. As a place becomes more violent, people change their behavior. They become more likely to interpret uncertainty in an aggressive way, more likely to carry a weapon, more likely to act quickly or first if they feel threatened. This is how the presence of violence creates more violence. This cascading effect, where violence begets violence, has been reinforced in the past year.
Last year, everyday patterns of life broke down. Schools shut down. Young people were on their own. There was a widespread sense of a crisis and a surge in gun ownership.
What percentage of the incremental murders of 2020 were committed with legally purchased rifles? One percent?
People stopped making their way to institutions that they know and where they spend their time. That type of destabilization is what creates the conditions for violence to emerge.
Thompson: To what extent should we blame the lockdowns, specifically, for separating people from these institutions? A lot of COVID-19 restrictions effectively shut down libraries, schools, and other places. I wonder if you think this idle time was a multiplier for violence.
Should I go to the library or should I go shoot up a funeral?
What? The library is closed? But I wanted to check out the new Elena Ferrante novel!
Well, then, I guess I’m compelled to go shoot up a funeral.
Patrick Sharkey: To avoid integration, Americans built barricades in urban space
Sharkey: It’s not just idle time but disconnection. That might be the better way to talk about it. People lost connections to institutions of community life, which include school, summer jobs programs, pools, and libraries.
Definitely, the libraries.
… Thompson: We have to talk about the effect of the 2020 summer protests on the rise in violence. I can imagine agreeing with two very different arguments. There’s the left’s argument that it would be reckless to exclusively attribute the increase in violent crime to the Black Lives Matter and “Defund the police” protests, which were understandable responses to very real problems. Clearly, last year was destabilizing in so many other ways. But then there’s the more conservative, I suppose you could call it, argument that the “Defund the police” movement was substantively wrong and possibly counterproductive, because more policing, not less policing, has been commonly associated with crime reduction. What’s more, the protests may have directly contributed to a pullback in police presence in certain cities. And sudden declines in police-civilian interactions have been associated with large increases in local crime. What’s the right way to sort through these interpretations?
Sharkey: Violence surged last year after the protests. There’s no doubt about that. The important part is to interpret it.
You’re right that, in the aftermath of high-profile [police scandals], the police often pull back. They change the types of incidents they get involved in. This can be political, or it can be individual choices. But there’s a second part. Residents and community members also often step back in the aftermath of high-profile incidents when the legitimacy of police departments is questioned. The public becomes less willing to reach out to police for help and less willing to cooperate or provide information.
When a social order depends on the police dominating public spaces,
You know, come to think of it, social order kind of does depend on the politicians' agents (i.e., the police) having a near monopoly on violence. When the politicians decide to not back their own hired guns, we see a lot of freelancers suddenly shooting their rivals. Funny how that works …
and that form of social order is questioned and starts to break down, it can lead to a surge in violence. It doesn’t mean that protests cause violence.
Yes, it does.
It means that when you depend on the police to dominate public spaces and they suddenly step back from that role, violence can increase.
As opposed to a superior system in which the Office of Diversity-Inclusion-Equity dominates public spaces?
Thompson: I want to make sure I understand your position here. One argument says that the crime surge followed the protests, so we can safely assume that the protests at least partly contributed to more crime. You’re saying if the crime surge is downstream from the protests, the protests are downstream from something else—an unstable social order. We have to go upstream to fix the public’s relationship with policing.
In other words, we can’t do anything about all the thousands of extra murders. Because that would be wrong.
Sharkey: That’s right. In my book I argued that the drop in violence had all these benefits, but it was unsustainable. And it was unsustainable because we were reliant on a model of responding to violence and urban inequality through brute force and punishment and dependence on prisons and the police to respond to every challenge that arises when poverty is concentrated.
So how is not relying on a model of responding to violence and urban inequality working out for you?
As long as that model is still in place, you can produce lower levels of violence. But you will also produce staggering levels of harm. That harm became very visible in the last five years and, in particular, after [the killing of] George Floyd.
It’s almost as if the dozen and a half unarmed blacks killed by police per year were a relatively small price to pay to avoid the thousands of incremental murders that happen as soon as the cops retreat to the donut shop.
It’s almost as if we tell blacks that they are entitled to run amok and then they do.
Thompson: Some people say that the simplest way to reduce crime will be to re-surge police presence in violent areas. I’ve called for “unbundling” police services and paying a broader group of local government and state employees to work with the homeless or handle domestic disputes. How do you think we should begin to reverse the rise in crime?
Sharkey: These surges in violence came from an old model of policing. In this old model, police respond to violence with brute force.
It’s like when Mr. Al-Issa murders ten people in a supermarket and the police come and shoot him in the leg after one cop is murdered. That’s the old model of brute force.
In the new model, a social worker with an M.A. in sociology from the U. of Colorado in Boulder shows up and … something good happens. Don’t bother me about the details right now, the point is that my idea is new and Good, while yours is time-tested and therefore Bad.