As 2016 drew to a close, law enforcement line-of-duty deaths reached their highest point in five years, with police killed by firearms up over 60 percent. Ambushes on police officers are reportedly their highest in two decades in a year where we’ve repeatedly seen multiple officers gunned down in the same incident. As with any trend as worrisome as this, we must ask why.
In late 2015, in a speech at the University of Chicago, FBI director Jim Comey, suggested he knew of no drivers of rising violent crime in the country as convincing to him as a perceived lack of motivation by police officers, due to the post-Ferguson scrutiny of police, to proactively execute their duties. He repeated what he was hearing from police across the country – police, afraid of becoming the next viral video, were pulling back. While the director admitted having only anecdotal information to back his assertion, it quickly struck nerves back in D.C.
Within hours, the White House, whose narrative has relentlessly suggested police racism is at the core of all criminal justice issues, challenged the director’s assessment as lacking in supportive data. The pushback also came from the Department of Justice, which was reportedly “fuming” because they saw Comey’s blunt assessment as undermining the administration’s criminal justice policies, particularly those focused on police as offenders.
As the White House and DOJ bosses boiled, the director was undeterred, repeating the speech at a chiefs of police convention in Chicago just days later, where his comments were warmly received. But an essential part of Comey’s assumption was missing – current data. Another of his public laments in the intervening year.
Now, with 2016 behind us, some of the missing data has appeared, in a troubling way.
After two decades of steady decline, the nation’s violent crime rate is predicted to rise for the second straight year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. Their analysis predicts violent crime will rise 3.3 percent in 2016, lower than their previously predicted 5.5 percent jump. Brennan also predicts the murder rate in America’s 30 largest cities will rise 14 percent, with president Obama’s hometown of Chicago accounting for almost half of the increase.
While the Brennan summary cautions against the notion of crime being “out of control,” it doesn’t calculate the massive human and financial toll of the hundreds of additional crimes on the victims and their families. Here are just three.
In July 2015, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, five times deported, shot a stolen gun on the San Francisco Embarcadero, striking 32 year old Kate Steinle in the back and ending her young life. The killer took full advantage of San Francisco’s “sanctuary city” status and the protection afforded by the misguided policy, while another American family suffered a crushing personal loss.
In early July 2016, Dallas police were escorting an anti-police march in that city when a sniper who shot down a dozen officers, five fatally, including Officer Patrick Zamarripa, a U.S. Navy veteran with six years on the job. Officer Zamarripa left behind a wife, 2-year-old daughter who will never know her father, and a stepson.
On Christmas Day, Tricia McCauley went missing in Washington, D.C. Two days later, the popular yoga instructor’s lifeless body was found, concealed by clothes, in the back of her car. She had been violently sexually assaulted and strangled. A man with a lengthy criminal history was found with McCauley’s car keys and credit cards when arrested. Although asking for an attorney, he reportedly told police he had sex with McCauley and she then hung herself inside her car.
Broader data points are now painfully evident – Chicago ended 2016 with over 4,000 shooting victims and over 750 homicides, the most in any year since the murderous mid-1990s. Over a dozen Chicagoans were shot on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And despite the momentous rise in violence there, arrests in the city have fallen by 28 percent from 2015 with the steepest drops reportedly coming in the most dangerous districts.
As we approach the swearing-in of a new president and administration, let’s hope for an openness to alternate, even competing, viewpoints on criminal justice, crime, and cause and effect. For two and a half years, since the poisonous lies of Ferguson, Missouri and the birth of the “Hands up, don’t shoot” and Black Lives Matter movements, something has changed in American policing. More and more, Jim Comey’s worry of “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement” is being proven right. Rising rates of violent crime and concurrently falling arrest and street-stop rates strongly suggest retreating police giving room for criminals to expand their harms.
We saw how that played out in Baltimore during the Freddie Gray riots of 2015 when mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake suggested police give “those who wished to destroy, space to do that as well.” Giving room for destruction may just bring destruction.