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Violent Crime Increases In Several Cities Nationwide

NOEL KING, HOST:

Violent crime - mostly shootings and killings - has risen in many cities this summer. Two big things make this summer different from last summer, of course - the pandemic and protests demanding racial justice and, in some cases, changes in policing. I talked to two reporters who've been looking into what, if any, role those things are playing. Deborah Becker is with member station WBUR in Boston. And NPR's Cheryl Corley is in Chicago. Here's Cheryl first.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Well, in Chicago, overall crime is actually down, but when it comes to shootings and murders, there's just really been this kind of dreadful increase. There's been about 1,800 shooting incidents so far - that's a 50% jump from last year - about 450 murders, another 50% jump. So, of course, the big question is, why? And Chicago's mayor, Lori Lightfoot, says there are just way too many guns in the city. Police have seized about 5,600 illegal guns so far. And she says the pandemic has really just stymied the normal operation of jails and the courts.

Now, police say gang wars are a big factor, not just fights over controlling neighborhoods but deadly fights over petty disputes or taunts on social media. And those shootings spur more shootings in kind of this deadly cycle of retaliation. So we've just seen this big increase in what officials say is really unprecedented during this summer.

KING: Other cities in the United States, of course, are dealing with the pandemic. Other cities in the United States have gangs. Are other cities reporting increases in gun violence?

CORLEY: Well, just about every major city is doing that. Every major city is on edge, even smaller ones like Kansas City, Mo., since January. There's been about 120 killings there. And for years, we've seen declines in cities like New York and Los Angeles, but they've seen big surges of summertime violence too. In Los Angeles, there were slightly more than 180 murders so far this year - that was a 17% increase over last year at this time - in New York, nearly 800 shootings - a big jump there - 237 murders, a 30% increase.

A lot of numbers - but this is an issue across the country, from Miami to San Diego. And, Noel, as startling as some of those numbers are, they aren't anywhere near the violent crime numbers of two to three decades ago. And now we're seeing, you know, serious crimes like robbery continue to decline, but we've just seen a real reversal when it comes to shootings and murders.

KING: Well, that's some important context that you point out there, the way things looked in this country, you know, 20, 30 years ago versus how they look now, as bad as they may look now. Deb, you're in Boston, and I understand - I've been looking at the numbers - there've been 10 more homicides now than there were last year at this time and 41 more shootings - not enormous numbers but significant enough. What is law enforcement there saying about what's happening?

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: Well, people say different things. We're not seeing anywhere near the numbers in some other cities, but a lot of folks say, you know, the pandemic is an issue here. First, many say that this uptick was expected, in part, because last year marked a 20-year low in crime rates for Boston and many other cities. But they also say the pandemic affected this in different ways. Some law enforcement officials say because of the pandemic, police were arresting fewer people for low-level crimes, both to prevent the spread of the virus by minimizing contact and to try to reduce the number of people incarcerated.

Boston's police commissioner said, you know, with courts closed and judges releasing some people to prevent the virus spread in jails, that people were sort of emboldened to commit crimes, and people who were released were committing crimes. But there's no data to back that up. There are no reports that anyone released because of the pandemic has been charged with any new offense.

And I spoke with Boston's District Attorney Rachael Rollins about this, and she said, really, at this point, more data are needed to know exact reasons for any upticks in crime. Even so, though, she thinks the pandemic is a factor, not because of any pullback by law enforcement but just because of what people are going through. This is what she says.

RACHAEL ROLLINS: The data will show that it's more of the exacerbating factors of COVID-19 and all of the stressors that we've seen and the economic and wealth and race-based disparities that we've seen that have just really been a pressure cooker.

BECKER: She also says that this rise in crime does not appear to be linked to any tensions between police and communities amid the racial justice protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

KING: So, Cheryl, what we are hearing - it sounds like overwhelmingly - is before we make any firm statements about whether or not a pullback by law enforcement is contributing to an increase in gun violence, we need more information. We just need more data. And I think that's completely fair. I'm curious - in the communities that you cover, in particular communities where young children have been shot - we've seen a handful of those cases throughout the summer, real terrible, terrible situations - are communities doing anything specifically?

CORLEY: Oh, absolutely. There are a number of activist organizations who are doing work. The city of Chicago is giving $7.5 million to antiviolence organizations. Some do street outreach work, talking to gang members in an effort to kind of settle disputes and before that violence escalates. There's others that connect community members, kind of a mentoring situation with young people considered vulnerable to gang violence, and then others work to find young people jobs. Now, all of this is just more difficult to do in a pandemic that requires social distancing, right? There's lots of activity going on to try to stop the increase in gun violence that's affecting so many communities.

KING: NPR's Cheryl Corley in Chicago and Deb Becker with WBUR in Boston, thanks so much for taking the time.

CORLEY: You're welcome.

BECKER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.