Murder rates rose significantly in 25 of the nation’s 100 largest cities last year, according to an analysis by The New York Times of new data compiled from individual police departments.
The findings confirm a trend that was tracked recently in a study published by the National Institute of Justice. “The homicide increase in the nation’s large cities was real and nearly unprecedented,” wrote the study’s author, Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who explored homicide data in 56 large American cities.
In the Times analysis, half of the increase came from just seven cities — Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Nashville and Washington.
Chicago had the most homicides — 488 in 2015 — far more than the 352 in New York City, which has three times as many people. Baltimore had the largest increase — 133 more than 2014 — and the second-highest rate in 2015, after St. Louis, which had 59 homicides per 100,000 residents.
The number of cities where rates rose significantly was the largest since the height of violent crime in the early 1990s.
Number of cities where
murder rates rose significantly
Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has said that crime is “out of control” and that decades of progress are now being reversed. But the Times analysis shows that the rise in homicides is much more nuanced; while violence is up in a number of cities, it’s not soaring across the nation.
Nationally, homicide rates are still much lower than they were in the 1990s, even among the seven cities that drove last year’s increase.
For the Times analysis, we collected 30 years of homicide data from the F.B.I. through 2014, then gathered 2015 data from local police departments in the 100 cities. (The F.B.I. will not release the full 2015 data until later this month.)
Since crime rates fluctuate from year to year, we used a statistical technique to determine places where we can definitely say rates were rising.
The Cities That Drove the Increase
Nationwide, nearly 6,700 homicides were reported in the 100 largest cities in 2015, about 950 more than the year before. About half of the rise — 480 of the 950 — occurred in seven cities. The poverty rate in these cities is higher than the national average.
At least three of these cities have also been embroiled in protests after police-involved deaths of black males, like Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Laquan McDonald in Chicago and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.
In his study, Dr. Rosenfeld said that rising crime might be linked to less aggressive policing that resulted from protests of high-profile police killings of African-Americans. But he said this hypothesis, a version of the so-called Ferguson effect, which has spurred heated debate among lawmakers and criminologists, must be further evaluated.
There is no consensus on what caused the recent spike, and each city appears to have unique circumstances contributing to the uptick.
“Cities are obviously heterogeneous,” said Robert Sampson, a Harvard professor who is an expert on crime trends. “There is tremendous variation across the largest cities in basic features such as demographic composition, the concentration of poverty, and segregation that relate to city-level differences in rates of violence.”
Many crime experts warn against reading too much into recent statistics. In fact, murder rates remained largely unchanged in 70 cities, and decreased significantly in five.
“Even if the uptick continues in some cities, I doubt the pattern will become universal,” Dr. Sampson said.
No End in Sight for Chicago’s Violence
In Chicago, homicides were concentrated in highly segregated pockets that are predominantly black. A fifth of Chicago’s killings took place in just two police districts on the city’s West and South Sides, which are also among the city’s poorest.
Chicago homicides in 2015
“Flare-ups and spikes in violence are occurring in predictable places,” Dr. Sampson said. “The cynicism and mistrust of legal institutions in poor black communities is longstanding, although recent conflicts with the police have exacerbated underlying tensions.”
Alarming levels of violence have become the norm in some of these neighborhoods. While murder rates have continued to decline in the nation’s two largest cities — New York and Los Angeles — Chicago’s has stalled in the last decade. At its peak in the 1990s, New York’s homicide rate was more than seven times as high as it is now.
How Chicago’s homicide rate compares
In Chicago, however, the landscape appears to be worsening, with killings up more than 45 percent so far this year. In August, Chicago had its deadliest month in about 20 years with at least 90 murders — and more homicides so far this year than New York and Los Angeles combined.
Areas with “long-standing conditions of alienation, hopelessness, poverty and lack of opportunities” also have the greatest distrust of the police and the greatest complaints of police abuse, said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who directs a civil rights and police accountability project at the law school.
That means homicides go unsolved, perpetuating a dangerous cycle because people committing the crimes are still out there. In some neighborhoods, the city’s clearance rate, the percentage of homicides in which the police arrest or identify a suspect, is less than 20 percent, he said.
Dr. Futterman said the city’s problems were intensified in recent years by the closing of more than 50 public schools in 2013, the dismantling of public housing throughout the 2000s, and the federal government’s successful prosecution of big gang leaders, which destabilized gang hierarchies, territories and illegal drug markets.
While there was violence before, ironically, crime was more contained and easier to police than it is now, he said.
What’s Behind the Surge
of Killings in Baltimore?
In 2015, Baltimore’s murder rate not only increased the most among the 100 top cities, it also reached a historic high of 55 homicides per 100,000 residents. Its previous record high was in 1993, when the rate was 48.
Baltimore’s homicide rate, per 100,000
Some experts attribute the sudden spike in violence largely to a flood of black-market opiates looted from pharmacies during riots in April 2015. The death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who sustained a fatal spinal cord injury in police custody, had set off the city’s worst riots since the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
During the riots, nearly 315,000 doses of drugs were stolen from 27 pharmacies and two methadone clinics, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, a number much higher than the 175,000 doses the agency initially estimated.
Most of the homicides in Baltimore were connected to the drug trade, and what happened in 2015 was a result of more people “getting into the game of selling drugs,” said Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore.
Number of homicides per month in Baltimore
Police commanders have said that an oversupply of inventory from looting resulted in a violent battle for customers among drug gangs.
“This would have caused a disruption in drug markets, with more people trying to maintain or increase their market share,” Dr. Ross said. “You have new entrants coming into the field, altering the supply and demand of illegal drugs in those neighborhoods,” often leading to increased violence.
If the drug theory holds true, the killings in Baltimore should subside this year. A midyear violent crime survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association showed that while killings were up among 60 large cities, they were slightly down in Baltimore.
“I’m not going to say they’re going to return to historic lows, but we hit a peak last year and things are settling themselves out,” Dr. Ross said.