By Julie Wernau and Joe Barrett
CHICAGO -- Law-enforcement officials in several large U.S.
cities are wrestling with a sharp rise in violent crime amid a
national debate over the role of police, calls to reduce
police-department budgets and growing fiscal troubles.
Some cities are on track to have their most violent summers in
In Milwaukee, homicides are up 37% so far this year, on pace to
break the record of 167 in 1991, which included 16 murders by
convicted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Homicides so far this year
in Chicago are ahead of the pace of 2016, which marked the city's
highest tally since 1996. In New York and Los Angeles, which have
seen falling numbers of homicides for years, killings this year are
up 23% and 11.6%, respectively. Kansas City, Mo., has recorded 99
killings since January, far outpacing any record for the first six
months of the year.
Police departments already face budget cuts around the U.S., the
result of falling tax revenues from pandemic lockdowns. Covid-19
has also made it difficult for officers to safely conduct community
outreach, say experts, worsening police-community relations.
Community groups acknowledge the crime increase but say more
aggressive policing to combat it shouldn't come at the expense of
enacting broader reform.
"This is not a quick fix," said V.J. Smith, national president
of Minneapolis-based Mad Dads, a group that acts as a buffer
between the community and police by trying to de-escalate violent
situations. "The only way to unite a community is to build it
Amid revenue shortfalls and calls to defund police, Art Acevedo,
Houston police chief and head of the Major Cities Chiefs
Association, said cities are now slashing police budgets without
plans in place to reallocate funds or replace functions typically
performed by police. "You don't tear down the building you're
living in until you have a new building to move into," he said.
City leaders and law-enforcement officials say the months of
lockdown, rising unemployment, more guns on the street and the
fallout from mass protests over the George Floyd killing helped
create conditions for more violence.
"This was a perfect storm," said Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso
Morales. "We had a series of events that many of us probably never
experienced in our time."
At the same time, law-enforcement officials say they are
weighing the risks of aggressively enforcing the law, concerned
that a backlash from activists, protesters and residents could
trigger attacks on police or a replay of the riots and looting that
marked some of the earlier protests. In some cases, officials say,
police are backing away from some kinds of petty crime arrests that
give them a higher profile on the street, hoping to quell
"It's a lot more dangerous to become a police officer," said Ray
Kelly, New York City's former longstanding police commissioner.
"What you see is a backing away."
New York City disbanded its anticrime unit of plainclothes
officers on June 15, part of a $1 billion reduction in the city's
police budget. The city logged 205 shootings in June, the highest
for the month since 1996. Police cited the release of some
prisoners from Rikers Island amid coronavirus concerns and bail
reforms that went into place earlier in the year.
Some departments, including New York City, have expressed
concern that officers are filing for retirement in larger numbers
than usual since the protests began. Between May 25 and July 3, 503
New York Police Department officers filed for retirement, compared
with 287 in the same period in 2019.
"This is a unique period in policing right now and you've got
police officers who, if they were thinking of retiring, this pushes
them toward that," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the
Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C., police
research and policy organization. He said the effects wouldn't be
felt the same everywhere.
In Chicago, the city announced a new specialized unit targeting
violence-prone neighborhoods to combat a surge in shootings and
There were 27 homicides in Chicago in the week ended July 5, a
125% increase from a year earlier, according to Chicago Police
Department data. Twenty-five of the killings were in the heavily
Black or Hispanic South and West sides.
Asiaha Butler -- founder of R.A.G.E., the Resident Association
of Greater Englewood in Chicago -- said throwing more cops at the
problem isn't the solution.
"The city or police, they always throw out these initiatives
without any insight and input from the community. And guess what?
The initiative doesn't work, and then they come to us. It's always
like an afterthought, " she said.
She said instead the police need to build relationships with the
small minority of the population that is involved in these crimes
-- and work with the people in the community who are in the best
position to influence them and prevent crime before it happens.
In Philadelphia, the number of gunshot victims had been steadily
increasing since 2014, when 1,047 people were shot. At the current
rate, the city could have its highest total since 2007. City
officials recently cut the proposed $760 million budget by $33
million, a combination of lower-than-expected tax revenue and calls
to retool the police department.
"We've put so much stuff on their plate: homeless response,
mental health, addiction response, these are not things they are
best trained to respond to," said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.
"We don't necessarily need to respond to every call to service with
a person trained with a gun and a badge."
In Minneapolis, where Mr. Floyd's killing inspired an
international movement to rein in police departments, tensions
between the Minneapolis police and the community ran so high that
12 police officers quit within one month. The Hennepin County
Sheriff's office said it had temporarily taken over some
enforcement duties to lower the visibility of local police.
In Kansas City, Mo., where a population of approximately half a
million people has had nearly 100 killings this year, Mayor Quinton
Lucas said he wants to tackle systemic issues contributing to
violence, but right now, they still need police.
"We have children dying right now on the streets," he said.
In part as a response to the violence in Kansas City, Attorney
General William Barr said this week that he would send more than
100 agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation; U.S. Marshals
Service; Drug Enforcement Administration; and Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to help state and local officials
fight violence in hard-hit cities.
The Major Cities Chiefs Association recently issued a list of
suggested policy reforms in response to the protest movement,
including a requirement that police departments across the country
have policies in place to ensure officers use the minimal amount of
force reasonably necessary when someone is resisting arrest.
Barry Friedman, faculty director of the The Policing Project at
the New York University School of Law, said he worried that police
would instead respond to the rise in violent crime with the kind of
rough tactics that make people distrustful of them. "Unfortunately,
at moments when violence is going up, policing agencies naturally
revert to the tactics that caused the breakdown of trust in the
first place. It's a vicious cycle," he said.
Mr. Morales, the Milwaukee police chief, said the city has been
working more closely with communities since it entered an agreement
with the American Civil Liberties Union two years ago to curb its
previous strategy of aggressive enforcement in high-crime
"We were overpolicing those neighborhoods" and alienating the
very citizens police needed on its side, he said.
The city has since tried to enlist residents and church groups
to help fight crime, and the results have been positive, he said.
Some of that work had to be curtailed because of coronavirus.
"We've got to get back with our foundation of community policing,"
Ben Chapman contributed to this article.
Write to Julie Wernau at Julie.Wernau@wsj.com and Joe Barrett at
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 11, 2020 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.