After Years of Decline, Murder Rates Are Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities

© Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times Essence Gilchrist, 15, center, from Milwaukee, said she knew Tariq Akbar, 14, who was fatally shot on July 3. Milwaukee has had more killings this year, with the summer not yet over, than all of 2014.
© Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times Essence Gilchrist, 15, center, from Milwaukee, said she knew Tariq Akbar, 14, who was fatally shot on July 3. Milwaukee has had more killings this year, with the summer not yet over, than all of 2014.

Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines, and few places have witnessed a shift as precipitous as this city. With the summer not yet over, 104 people have been killed this year — after 86 homicides in all of 2014.

More than 30 other cities have also reported increases in violence from a year ago. In New Orleans, 120 people had been killed by late August, compared with 98 during the same period a year earlier. In Baltimore, homicides had hit 215, up from 138 at the same point in 2014. In Washington, the toll was 105, compared with 73 people a year ago. And in St. Louis, 136 people had been killed this year, a 60 percent rise from the 85 murders the city had by the same time last year.

Law enforcement experts say disparate factors are at play in different cities, though no one is claiming to know for sure why murder rates are climbing. Some officials say intense national scrutiny of the use of force by the police has made officers less aggressive and emboldened criminals, though many experts dispute that theory.

Rivalries among organized street gangs, often over drug turf, and the availability of guns are cited as major factors in some cities, including Chicago. But more commonly, many top police officials say they are seeing a growing willingness among disenchanted young men in poor neighborhoods to use violence to settle ordinary disputes.

“Maintaining one’s status and credibility and honor, if you will, within that peer community is literally a matter of life and death,” Milwaukee’s police chief, Edward A. Flynn, said. “And that’s coupled with a very harsh reality, which is the mental calculation of those who live in that strata that it is more dangerous to get caught without their gun than to get caught with their gun.”

The results have often been devastating. Tamiko Holmes, a mother of five, has lost two of her nearly grown children in apparently unrelated shootings in the last eight months. In January, a daughter, 20, was shot to death during a robbery at a birthday party robbery at a Days Inn. Six months later, the authorities called again: Her only son, 19, had been shot in the head in a car — a killing for which the police are still searching for a motive and a suspect.

Ms. Holmes said she recently persuaded her remaining teenage daughters to move away from Milwaukee with her, but not before one of them, 17, was wounded in a shooting while riding in a car.

“The violence was nothing like this before,” said Ms. Holmes, 38, who grew up in Milwaukee. “What’s changed is the streets and the laws and the parents. It’s become a mess and a struggle.”

Urban bloodshed — as well as the overall violent crime rate — remains far below the peaks of the late 1980s and early ’90s, and criminologists say it is too early to draw broad conclusions from the recent numbers. In some cities, including Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Newark, homicides remain at a relatively steady rate this year.

Yet with at least 35 of the nation’s cities reporting increases in murders, violent crimes or both, according to a recent survey, the spikes are raising alarm among urban police chiefs. The uptick prompted an urgent summit meeting in August of more than 70 officials from some of the nation’s largest cities. A Justice Department initiative is scheduled to address the rising homicide rates as part of a conference in September.

“If you have that many cities that are having that kind of experiences, we ought to worry about it,” said Darrel W. Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association and a former police chief in Charlotte, N.C.

In New York and Chicago, homicides have risen from the 2014 numbers, which officials said were the lowest in decades.

In New York, killings have increased by about 9 percent, to 208 through mid-August from 190 a year earlier. Homicides in Chicago are up about 20 percent over the same period a year ago.

The police superintendent in Chicago, Garry McCarthy, said he thought an abundance of guns was a major factor in his city’s homicide spike. Even as officials in both parties are calling for reducing the prison population, he insisted that gun offenders should face stiffer penalties.

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Source: The New York Times | MONICA DAVEY and MITCH SMITH

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