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Local Government

No One Knows What Is Driving Dallas’ Violent Crime Spike

Violent crime is up in all U.S. cities prompting experts to urge for 'humility' from policy makers looking to diagnosis and treat the problem.

As Tim mentioned in Leading Off, violent crime in Dallas is on the rise. The issue was thrust onto center stage during Dallas’ recent city budget process, as demands by anti-police violence protesters to redirect police department funding into community programs ran up against an established orthodoxy, voiced most prominently by the mayor, that holds that violent crime is best met by additional police resources.

Now, the council wants to find ways to respond to the rise in crime. But the truth is no one really knows why crime is on the rise – and no one really knows what contributes to reducing it.

A recent report by the Council on Criminal Justice points out that the recent rise in crime is not unique to Dallas. Crime has been on the rise in all American cities in 2020:

“Homicide rates between June and August of 2020 increased by 53% over the same period in 2019, and aggravated assaults went up by 14%.” Other data, from crime analyst Jeff Asher, found that murder is up 28 percent throughout the year so far, compared to the same period in 2019, in a sample of 59 US cities. A preliminary FBI report also found murders up 15 percent nationwide in the first half of 2020.

So what’s happening?

Some experts speculate that the recent protests could have led to officers pulling back from their duties or increased community distrust, which has allowed some violence to go unchecked. One curious aspect of the rise in crime that analysts found is that murders are up despite a consistent number of reported shootings, suggesting that shootings may be going unreported. Other experts point to the huge increase in gun purchases this year. Still others wonder if the troubled economy, ongoing pandemic, and the boredom, social displacement, and other associated and potent psychological effects can be linked to a rise in crime.

Whatever the cause, everyone agrees that 2020 is unusual, with a sharp increase in violent crime following a trend that has seen violent crime on the decline for decades. Here’s Vox again:

“We don’t know nearly enough to know what’s going on at the given moment,” Jennifer Doleac, director of the Justice Tech Lab, told me. “The current moment is so unusual for so many different reasons that … it’s really hard to speculate about broad phenomena that are driving these trends when we’re not even sure if there’s a trend yet.”

This is important to keep in mind as Dallas’ political leaders mobilize to do something—anything—about the crime spike. The root causes of the rise in crime are unknown, and they may be outside policy makers’ control. At the very least, the things possibly driving the increase—like health and economic hardship—may not be best addressed by throwing police at the problem. Analysts found that the rise in crime is also consistent across all large U.S. metro areas, regardless of the political persuasion of cities’ mayors. There’s also a chance that, as the effects of the pandemic subside, things may simply return to how they were before the recent rise in crime.

But here’s what really jumped out at me in this report by Vox. Not only are murders on the rise in 2020 in all U.S. cities, but the downward trend in crime that has also defined nearly all U.S. cities in recent years is equally as baffling for many criminal justice experts:

Uncertainty about what’s going on isn’t exactly new in the field of criminal justice. Rates of crime and violence have plummeted over the past few decades in the US, yet there is no agreed-upon explanation for why. There are theories applying the best evidence, research, and data available, ranging from changes in policing to a drop in lead exposure to the rise of video games. But there’s no consensus.

That a decades-long phenomenon is still so hard to explain shows the need for humility before jumping to conclusions about the current trends.