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Murder totals took an unexpected and upward turn in many big U.S. cities last year.
Will this will turn out to be just a one-year deviation from the nation's two-decade-plus drop in violent crime or is it a warning sign of bad times ahead for most urban centers?
Two leading criminologists say it's too early to tell, but they agree that the increase was too large to ignore.
Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University and Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis both follow crime numbers closely. They offered their analysis last week to the 11th annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Taking the long view, Blumstein said that even with last year's rising murder numbers in some places, the national homicide rate is way below what it was in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Much of the increase in those decades was due to gang warfare and drug market turf battles, which doesn't appear to be the main cause of recent rises, he said.
By default, many observers are focusing on what St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson has dubbed the "Ferguson effect," a possible slowdown by law enforcement under criticism over police shootings of civilians.
Blumstein called the "Ferguson effect" label an "unfortunate designation" stemming from a case that doesn't represent a fundamental change in policing.
He would prefer to focus on the "Scott effect," named for the fatal shooting of Walter Scott by an officer in North Charleston, S.C. After being stopped for a broken tail light, Scott began to run and was shot in the back by an officer who argued that Scott had put his life in danger, but a bystander's video showed there was no danger.
There is no well-documented evidence that the murder rise in big cities somehow resulted from the "Scott effect," either---meaning public criticism of the way some police officers are acting. The movement toward more police accountability and better training for officers in handling volatile situations will help determine whether that possible contributing cause of homicide increases will continue, Blumstein said.
Picking up where Blumstein left off, Rosenfeld said a more likely explanation for any "Ferguson effect" was a "police legitimacy crisis," mainly among African-Americans in communities where there are tense relations with police, rather decisions by police officers to engage in less- aggressive enforcement.
Gallup surveys between 2011 and 2014 showed that only 37 percent of blacks have a great deal of confidence in police, compared with 59 percent whites. Some 73 percent of blacks last year told Gallup that they believed police treat blacks less fairly than they do whites, although that same result was found in 2007, long before controversial police shootings in recent years.
"Circumstantial evidence" favors the police legitimacy issue as contributing to homicides in some cities, Rosenfeld said. He cited a "reservoir of lack of confidence in police."
Rosenfeld looked at data from 56 big cities where homicides increased a total of nearly 17 percent last year. The "top ten" of these cities produced a disproportionate share of the homicide rise.
They are (starting with the city whose increase was largest) Cleveland, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Albuquerque, Louisville, Charlotte, Houston and Wichita. (The data were provided by the Washington Post and the Major Cities Police Chiefs Association.) Those cities have a larger average population of blacks, the unemployed, and poor people than other cities.
Homicide increases in larger cities like Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles have had much attention in the media, but the percentage rises are lower than the top ten mentioned by Rosenfeld.
Rosenfeld lamented the FBI's long delay in releasing homicide data. In January, the bureau issued a report on figures from the first half of 2015.
Because most cities report to the FBI on a monthly basis, the bureau should be able to make public reports within a month or two, he said. As it stands, scattered news media reports are the basis for most commentary by experts and others.
"We should not have to wait until next [fall] for the data needed to evaluate the scope of and reasons behind the homicide rise of 2015," Rosenfeld says. The FBI typically does not issue a full compilation of the previous year's crime totals until late September.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers' comments are welcome.