Ferguson Effect: Murders Spike by Double Digits

New FBI report details escalating crisis of crime in Obama's America

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 26 Sep 2016 at 2:07 PM

The number of homicides in the United States spiked by nearly 11 percent last year compared with 2014, surging to the highest total since President Obama’s first year in office, the FBI reported Monday.

The statistics, which cover some 16,643 law enforcement agencies, showed 15,696 murders and manslaughters, 1,532 more than that the 14,164 that occurred in 2014. The rate of 4.9 homicides per 100,000 residents also was the highest since 2009, when it was 5 per 100,000. In addition, overall violent crime increased 3.9 percent from 2014 to 2015 — even as property crimes fell for the 13th consecutive year.

“The overall violent crime rate showed an increase of almost 4 percent. That should put everybody in alarm mode. Any notion to spin that in a positive way is ridiculous.”

The increases were concentrated in the biggest population centers. Among cities with at least 1 million residents, the number of homicides increased 10.8 percent and the rate went up from 7.4 per 100,000 residents to 8.1 per 100,000. For all cities with at least 250,000 residents, homicides rose by 12.9 percent.

The figures come on the day Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton are set to square off in their first of three presidential debates. The new statistics likely will give Trump ammunition to make his case as the law-and-order candidate.

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“The overall violent crime rate showed an increase of almost 4 percent,” said Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant District Attorneys. “That should put everybody in alarm mode. Any notion to spin that in a positive way is ridiculous.”

Cook said his organization warned two years ago that the inevitable result of sentencing reforms giving early release to tens of thousands of convicted criminals would be an increase in violent crime.

“This is one of the few times you can only hope to be wrong,” he said. “But we’re not.”

William Otis, a former federal prosecutor who served in both Bush administrations, said many people have forgotten how pervasive crime had become a generation ago and seem wiling to ignore the lessons of history.

"I think the headline out of this is back to the bad, old days," he said. "It's not the biggest murder spike in the last 50 years, but it's close … That's just really bad news."

Violent crime in general and homicides in particular remain well below their 1990s highs, both in real terms and as a percentage of the population. The highest number of homicides in the last 20 years occurred in 1996, when 19,645 people died violently. With a much smaller population then, the rate per 100,000 people was 7.4 — about a third higher than today.

Similarly, with almost 1.7 million violent crimes in 1996, the violent crime rate of 636.6 per 100,000 people dwarfs the 372.6 rate announced Monday.

But Otis, now an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University and contributor to the "Crime and Consequences" blog, said policymakers should not wait for crime to return to 1990s levels to become concerned. He said he expects Clinton, if asked about the FBI report at the debate, to warn against "fear mongering." But he said it is a legitimate concern for Trump to raise.

"A murder increase of 11 percent in one year?" he said. "Where is the outrage? Why isn't the president calling a news conference right now?"

Rising Crime
YearHomicidesViolent Crimes
200915 3991.33 million
201014 7221.25 million
201114 6611.21 million
201214 8561.22 million
201314 3191.17 million
201414 1641.15 million
201515 6961.2 million
Source: FBI Uniform Crime Report

There are indications that — in some big cities — 2016 is shaping up to be as bad or worse than the previous year. More people have been murdered in Chicago so far this year than died all of last year in the Somali civil war.

But Otis said the reaction has been blunted because many people — particularly those in high government positions — live in neighborhoods where crime is not a factor.

"People who say these things, maybe they can afford to be complacent," he said. "Eleven percent is not a statistical fluctuation. It is a real increase, and it has real causes."

Among those, Otis said, is the so-called "Ferguson effect," a term describing a decrease in aggressive police in the face of pressure from groups such as Black Lives Matter. University of Missouri-St. Louis professor Richard Rosenfeld, originally a skeptic of the phenomenon, changed his mind after studying the issue. His take is that minority communities have lost faith in police, which has spawned more crime.

Cook noted that the most recent sentencing reform at the federal level resulted in breaks for 47,000 prisoners, many of them major drug dealers, on top of two earlier rounds. Beyond that, President Obama's record-setting pace of granting clemency sends the wrong message, Cook said.

Cook pointed to statistics indicating that federal criminal prosecutions have declined by 27 percent over the last five years.

Many states, which account for the vast majority of America's prison population, have adopted similar reforms. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of people in state and federal prisons has dropped from 1.6 million in 2009 to 1.56 million in 2014, the last year for which data is available. That is a 3.3 percent decline.

Cook predicted violent crimes will continue to rise as long as the country maintains its current approach.

"It's crazy to think it's a one-time blip," he said. "When criminals are in prison, crime goes down. When criminals are out of prison, crime goes up."

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