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CHICAGO – Mayors of American cities have longed for the moment when they could return to normal and lift coronavirus restrictions on bars, restaurants, parties and public gatherings.
But now, even with reopenings underway in the United States as the pandemic subsides, city guides are grappling with yet another crisis: a crime wave with no sign of an end.
They are cheering the return of office workers to the city centers and encouraging tourists to visit to rejuvenate the economy and increase public confidence. But they are also desperately trying to quell a wave of murders, assaults and car thefts that began during the pandemic and rocked recovery.
In Austin, Texas, for example, 14 people were injured in a mass shooting early Saturday morning when revelers blocked a popular downtown nightlife area.
Some city officials have announced progressive strategies focusing on community policing in neighborhoods where trust between police and residents is frayed. Others have used more traditional tactics, such as increasing security cameras in crisis areas and enforcing curfews in city parks, to evacuate crowds, as police have done in Washington Square Park in Manhattan for the past few days.
In Chicago, which reopened fully on Friday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot made it clear that her focus was on reducing summer violence and that as part of that effort, her administration would focus resources on 15 high-crime areas of the city.
“We owe it to all of our residents in every neighborhood to bring back peace and vibrancy,” said Ms. Lightfoot.
Superintendent David Brown, head of the Chicago Police Department, announced this month a “transformative moment” for the department, a plan to enlist more officers in the Civil Rights Unit specially trained to work with marginalized residents, including the homeless are. The plan would also expand initiatives for young people in the arts and sports.
Other cities like Miami are almost free of pandemic restrictions and are booming with tourists. This month, Miami-Dade District Chief Prosecutor and local police leaders turned to the public safety issue and announced Operation Summer Heat, an initiative to combat a wave of gunfights. The number of homicides in Miami this year is 30 percent higher than for the same period in 2020, according to the coroner’s data.
Efforts include additional street lights and surveillance cameras, prosecutors deployed in “hot spot” areas, and crackdown on illegal party enforcement.
“We have never seen this before,” said Alfredo Ramirez III, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, of the recent surge in violence. “Now you will see something you have never seen before: you will see law enforcement united and working as a unit.”
Business owners hoping for tourism to return are particularly concerned about the ongoing violence.
Pete Berghoff, whose family has owned the historic Berghoff Restaurant in Chicago’s Loop since 1898, plans to reopen in July. But he is concerned about the stubborn gatherings of young people downtown who have turned violent.
“I am very concerned that there will be confrontations on my return to work,” he said. “We look forward to reopening. But we have to make sure that everyone in the city center feels safe. “
According to criminologists, murder rates in major cities rose an average of more than 30 percent last year and a further 24 percent earlier this year.
Gil Monrose, a Mt. Day pastor at Zion Church of God in Brooklyn, said that before the virus hit New York, residents became increasingly involved in his anti-violence organization. Members began to see progress on gun crime, he said.
Then came the pandemic.
“It’s like starting all over again, but with all the complexity of this moment,” he said. “To the point where I don’t know how we got to where we are now.”
Gun violence catapulted its way to the top of the hotly contested New York mayor’s race after a rare shooting in Times Square in May that injured three spectators, including a four-year-old girl. In a recent debate, several candidates put forward sweeping proposals to remove weapons from the city’s streets, while some more moderate challengers demonstrated a more robust police response, including the resumption of civilian crime units.
In Milwaukee, where the murders hit a record high in 2020, residents of gunfire-stricken neighborhoods are ready to leave the country. Asia Flanagan, 40, said she intended to move out with her young son after a year of what felt like an endless tragedy on Milwaukee’s North Side.
“We’ll be out of here by October,” she said as she sat outside her apartment earlier this month with her son Josiah, who was wearing a gray Captain America romper and fiddling with the family minivan’s key fob. “This is my birthday present to me. I have to raise a son. “
Arnitta Holliman heads Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention, a unit within the Department of Health that has been hailed for her role in the sharp fall in homicides from 2016 to 2019. She attributed the current boom in part to growing access to arms – Wisconsin set its previous record for arms sales last year – and the destabilizing effects of the pandemic.
“There are a myriad of problems that contribute to why we see higher levels of violence – poverty, food insecurity and other related issues,” she said, “and of course Covid.”
A violence prevention and intervention strategy announced by Ms. Holliman’s department involves attempting to connect young people to more than 80 programs and activities to keep them out of trouble.
Bouchards, a boutique fashion retailer, fully opened its two Milwaukee locations about a month ago, but the owner, Rami Murrar, said the surge in violence seems to be keeping some people away.
“It definitely has a negative impact on my business,” said Mr. Murrar, 40. “We generally see more people walking around downtown with guns, face down or something. People will shop less because they are afraid to go out. “
Small and medium-sized cities also saw an alarming increase in shootings.
Last month the Jackson, Miss., City council met in a church for a special session on the gun violence crisis in a city of approximately 160,000 people. According to police statistics, there were 130 homicides last year, which far exceeded the previous record of 92 killings in 1995.
With homicides up about 70 percent in the first three months of this year, outrage and frustration continue to mount.
“If we don’t save these children,” said Kenneth I. Stokes, a councilor, during the meeting, “we’re going to keep these meetings going, keep going to the funerals – and wonder why.”
In Lubbock, Texas, with a population of 259,000, homicides doubled from 2019 to 2020 – 11 homicides have been recorded so far this year, according to police data. Some local residents said they felt a heightened police presence to fight crime and that this gave them comfort.
In the north of town, Margarita Garza, 54, sat in her front yard last week while her grandchildren played around her.
She raised them while her son was incarcerated for drug offenses, she said, adding that it is drug trafficking in Lubbock that has led to more violence and gang activity in the area. “Everyone wants their drug money,” she said. “Some people are attacked and don’t pay, so they’re either shot or killed.”
In Atlanta, the rise in crime has become a driving theme in mayoral elections, causing some residents and businesses to lose confidence in the city’s leadership.
During the first 18 weeks of the year, police statistics show homicides increased by 57 percent, rape by 55 percent, serious injury by 36 percent and car theft increased by 31 percent compared to the same period last year.
“I see signs that people are getting a little tired,” said Felicia A. Moore, city council president and running for mayor. “We have people who have left town, who are threatening to leave town.”
In the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta, which has been a center of the city’s wealth for generations, the rise in murder and robbery crime has fueled a backlash so severe that some residents are pushing to split off and own a city establish.
“We are besieged with all of this,” said Bill White, chairman and executive director of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, the group that drove the secessionist effort. “People tell me, ‘It feels like a war zone.’ You don’t feel safe stepping on the gas in the middle of the day. “
While frustration increased, there was also a feeling that residents did not want to return to the aggressive measures officials had resorted to in the past, which had long-lasting consequences and had a disproportionate impact on African Americans.
Harsh attitudes to crime, once widespread among voters, have found waning support as the country faced inequalities in the criminal justice system. Even without the consequences, criminal justice experts have questioned its effectiveness.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the same old story this time,” said Tom Clark, professor of political science and director of the Politics of Policing Lab at Emory University. “Americans today understand that being tough on crimes means more than just catching more criminals.
“We understand that it leads to the death of innocent civilians, it leads to disproportionate policing by some communities towards others, we understand that this leads to long-term negative consequences for the relationship between police and community.”
Dan Simmons Contribution to coverage from Milwaukee, Troy Closson from New York and Lucinda Holt from Lubbock, Texas.