What’s behind rising violent crimes in the U.S., and how they can be reduced

Recent shootings in New York City have spotlighted a troubling rise in gun violence and homicide across the country. Amna Nawaz reports on why violent crime has increased and how cities can prevent it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Recent shootings in New York City have spotlighted a troubling rise in gun violence and homicide across the country.

    Amna Nawaz has our report on why violent crime has increased and how cities can prevent it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    A grim start to the year in New York City, with residents across the boroughs reeling from a series of attacks, in Times Square, a woman pushed to death on the subway tracks, in the Bronx, an 11-month-old baby shot in the face, and, in Harlem, two police officers shot to death while on duty.

    It's sent newly inaugurated Mayor Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, to prayer vigils, roundtables and to the center of a national debate on gun violence and public safety.

    Eric Adams (D), Mayor of New York: We need Washington to join us and act now to stop the flow of guns in New York City and cities like New York.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The issue is resonating nationwide. Over the weekend, an officer was wounded in Washington, D.C., and a deputy killed in Houston, Texas.

    Ted Heap, Harris County, Texas, Precinct 5 Constable: We cannot have people like this on our streets.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The overall picture of violent crime in America right now is complicated.

    A new report by the Council on Criminal Justice tracks that. In 2021, the homicide rate rose by 5 percent, an increase, but by a much smaller margin than in 2020, when homicides rose by 29 percent. And these numbers are still only about half the rate during the nation's peak in the early 1990s.

    Still it was top of mind for city leaders, who gathered for the national mayors conference in Washington, D.C., last week. There, Republicans and Democrats alike endorsed investing in police departments, like Miami Mayor Francis Suarez:

    Francis Suarez (R), Mayor of Miami, Florida: As we have invested in our police departments, we saw a shocking correlation. Crime went down.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And President Joe Biden:

  • President Joe Biden:

    We shouldn't be cutting funding for police departments. I have proposed increasing funding.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Back in New York on Monday, Mayor Adams echoed that message.

  • Eric Adams:

    We will not surrender our city to the violent few.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Laying out a blueprint to end gun violence, to empower community anti-violence groups, expand programs for youth jobs and mental health, harsher sentences on gun trafficking, and an increased police presence on the streets.

  • Eric Adams:

    The NYPD is our first line of defense against gun violence. We will make new efforts to strengthen and reinforce it, while continuing our mission to involve the community.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That includes bring back a remodeled version of plainclothes units, the teams behind a number of the city's most notorious police shootings, disbanded amid calls for reform in 2020. Adams said he'd ensure they didn't repeat past mistakes.

  • Eric Adams:

    We're not looking to be heavy-handed. But we're not looking to be dangerous to our city. And I'm going to look for and strike that right balance.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    New Yorkers can expect to see change on the streets in the coming weeks, a sign of one city's approach to violent crime.

    To understand why violence is up nationwide and what policies can address this, I'm joined by Thomas Abt. He is the chair of the Council on Criminal Justice's Violent Crime Working Group, which studies evidence-based strategies for public safety.

    Thomas Abt, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being here.

    So, as we mentioned there, the violent crime rates are not what we saw in the 1990s, but those increases, they show up. People see that and they feel that in their community.

    So, what do we know is behind those increases? What is driving them?

    Thomas Abt, Council on Criminal Justice: Sure. It is a pleasure to be with you, Amna, today.

    Basically, it is hard to tell what drives crime trends, but the experts broadly agree on three main reasons. First, it is the pandemic. As people know, the pandemic has placed everyone under incredible pressure, but, in particular, it has placed disproportionate pressure on poor communities of color, precisely where community gun violence concentrates.

    The second major cause is, in fact, these guns. We saw record sales of guns in 2020, continuing to 2021. And, unfortunately, some recent ATF data shows that the — quote, unquote — "time to crime," meaning the time illegally purchased gun needs to funnel through the gray and black markets into the hands of the criminal, has shortened considerably.

    And, in fact, what we're seeing on the streets of our cities is that more illegal guns are being recovered, despite the fact that there have been fewer arrests.

    The final thing that's driving these crime trends is the social unrest that followed the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And what that incident and other incidents like it did is, it drove a wedge between cops and the communities they serve.

    And what we're seeing is, we're seeing police alienated from communities and communities alienated from police. So, we're seeing less proactive investigation from police. And we're seeing less cooperation in some of the impact — in most impacted communities.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let me ask you what you have seen so far, as mayors are responding. We just saw the New York City mayor, Adams, there talking about how he'd like to respond to the increase in crime there, more police on the streets, but also empowering some of those community programs you were mentioning.

    We actually spoke with a gentleman in New York who works with a crime — or, rather, a violence reduction program in the neighborhood of Brownsville. His name is Anthony Newerls.

    And here's what he told us about something they tried recently.

  • Anthony Newerls, Brownsville In, Violence Out:

    We asked the police department to let us police our own community. So it was a community-based-led resources.

    Knowing the needs of the community, knowing that they have housing issues, mental health issues, summonses and warrants and food, we bought resources out for a week straight from 12:00 p.m. to 800 p.m. And not one, not one violent incident took place that week.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Thomas, Anthony saying they actually pulled back on policing, and they saw crime go down.

    Is that an approach more cities should be trying?

  • Thomas Abt:

    I think what cities need to do, and, frankly, what I think Mayor Adams is doing, is try to strike the right balance.

    It's important to understand that police are essential to crime fighting, particularly fighting against the most serious forms of crime, such as violence.

    At the same time, police are necessary, but not sufficient. So we also need partners for those police, including community groups like the one we just heard about. And so that's really the important thing.

    Unfortunately, across the country, far too often, we're having sort of an either/or conversation. Either it's the police or it's these community groups. You're either for the police or you're against the police. And the science says, we actually need both.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, what about this kind of knee-jerk reaction we see in a lot of places, right? People see crime numbers go up, and the immediate response from leaders who want to appear responsive and assertive is to say we're going to answer with more police.

    We know, even with all the conversation around police reform, that more cities are spending a bigger part of their budget on police departments in the last year. So, how do you encourage those leaders to make sure there's a mixed response; it's not just responding with police; these community programs are also getting funding?

  • Thomas Abt:


    Police funding as a share of overall state, local and even federal budgets is remarkably consistent. And I wouldn't expect to see a major increase this year. But what I would say is that it's very important to understand that it's not necessarily more police that we need or less please. It's the right kind of policing.

    Serious gun violence is remarkably concentrated. It's concentrated in every city among a surprisingly small number of people and a small number of places often known as micro-locations or hot spots. And so, yes, we need police in those places. But, no, we don't need to return to some of the practices that — of mass arrest, mass incarceration that left us with really some of the highest levels of imprisonment in the world.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Thomas Abt, chair of the Violent Crime Working Group, joining us tonight.

    Thank you so much for your time.

  • Thomas Abt:

    Pleasure to be with you.

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