This year has brought an unusually grim and steady pattern of violence throughout the country. Violent crime has often been a local government concern and a problem that had been on the decline. However rising homicide totals in most of America’s large cities have sounded alarms within the Obama administration, with federal officials drawing urgent attention to the problem before Congress, at conferences and in speeches.
This month the Justice Department organized a brainstorming summit with mayors and police chiefs and last week while FBI Director James Comey, was testifying he said the “very disturbing” homicide spike has law enforcement scrambling to figure out why it’s happening now, and why in so many cities that seemingly have little in common otherwise.
Comey also told the House Judiciary Committee “It’s happening all over the country, and it’s happening all in the last 10 months and so a lot of us in law enforcement are talking and trying to understand what is happening in this country. What explains the map? What explains the calendar? ”
On Tuesday President Barack Obama is scheduled to discuss criminal justice issues at a conference of police chiefs in Chicago. Although the numbers are nowhere close to the early 1990s, when the crack cocaine epidemic contributed to hundreds of homicides a year in large cities, federal officials are still concerned.
The concern is that the current trend comes as a series of high-profile police shootings of young black men have driven a wedge between police and their communities and placed policing tactics under extraordinary scrutiny. Comey has said that each instance of perceived officer misconduct, and each time an officer is physically attacked while on patrol, risks widening that divide between the community and those who protect it.
In 2012 Washington, D.C. recorded just 88 homicides but already has 128 this year. As of Oct. 18 Chicago police counted 385 killings, which is up from 323 on the same date last year and police in Cleveland say they had 101 slayings as of Friday (an increase from the 87 they reported at the same time last year).
There’s no single explanation for the problem, and it’s not clear whether this year’s numbers are an aberration or the start of a disturbing trend. Some blame easier access to drugs and guns and have suggested that residents, including gangs, suddenly seem more willing to resolve petty disputes with deadly violence.
Other experts think that the homicide totals had crept so low that it was unreasonable to expect that decline to continue, or theorize that police strategies may have stopped evolving amid success.
Last week Comey raised another possibility: those cellphone videos, and the possibility that such recordings could go viral, have made some officers anxious about getting out of their cars and wading into face-to-face encounters. However White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that the “available evidence does not support the notion that law enforcement officers around the country are shying away from fulfilling their responsibilities.”
Police chiefs as well as other law enforcement officials announced a push for national background checks for those attempting to purchase firearms. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen exactly what the federal government will do about the problem.
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