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No simple solutions to complex problem of societal violence

Crime exploded in the 1960s and 1970s, and stayed on an upward trajectory into the 1990s.

Then, suddenly, it fell. And kept falling.

The cause of the decline has been the subject of stacks of sociological studies, but no one has been able to pinpoint a single overriding reason why crime went into retreat in the final decade of the 20th century and remained at bay in the first two decades of this century. Maybe it was the baby boomer generation mellowing into middle age. Perhaps it was the rise in the use of anti-depressants and other mood-altering prescription medications. Tougher policing and increased incarceration may have had something to do with it, as well as reduced lead exposure, good economic times and urban gentrification.

It could have been a combination of all these things.

Now, crime is starting to creep back up. And, as with its fall, no one has been able to offer a tidy explanation why. Has it been the dislocations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with its increased unemployment, enforced isolation, illness and overlay of anxiety? In 2020, the ranks of some police forces were reduced due to officers having to quarantine after exposure to the virus. Also, the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 and the protests that followed might have led police to back off from some situations.

Floyd’s killing might have also led some communities to mistrust the police. Dr. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, told The New York Times, “When police legitimacy is greatly reduced, you get more crime because people are no longer relying on the criminal justice system for assistance.”

Rosenfeld explained that “people are less willing to cooperate with police in investigations, less willing to report crimes or other problems to the police and more willing to take matters into their own hands.”

Still, the national numbers are disturbing. Chicago saw a 50-percent increase in homicides over 2019, while Los Angeles saw a 30-percent increase and New York experienced a 40-percent increase. Pittsburgh also saw an increase in homicides in 2020, though it was not significant when compared to recent years.

We can only hope that this new crime wave starts to recede once the pandemic is more or less behind us and people are back in jobs. We also hope that civilian review boards, like the one that is being considered in Washington, help increase trust between police and the communities they serve.

There are no silver bullets, though. Over the long haul, investments need to be made in areas that have seen large-scale disinvestment in recent years. Schools need to be made better in impoverished communities, pubic parks need to be improved, blight needs to be eliminated. And, violence needs to be treated as a public health problem, not just a political issue.

If crime does continue to inch up in the months ahead, you can bet it will become a political issue. It’ll be fertile ground for demagogy, but we should avoid thinking there are simple solutions to a large and very complex problem.

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