The United States cut its national homicide rate from its recent peak of 9.8 per 100,000 in 1991 to 4.5 per 100,000 in 2014, a dramatic social accomplishment that saved not only tens of thousands of lives but probably billions of dollars, too. The decline and fall of violent crime paid a huge, if woefully under-appreciated, political dividend as well: the end of street crime as a wedge issue in U.S. politics, which is plenty divisive without it.

Alas, there are troubling signs that this great achievement may be in peril. The number-crunchers at The Post’s Wonkblog have analyzed preliminary police-supplied data for the 50 largest U.S. cities in 2015, and the results are not encouraging. Overall, according to the data, the number of homicides rose 17 percent, from 4,554 in 2014 to 5,321 in 2015, reflecting increases in homicides in 36 of the 50 jurisdictions. Murder rates spiked especially dramatically in the two largest cities of our area; the District’s 2015 rate of 24.6 per 100,000 residents represented a 54 percent increase over 2014, and Baltimore’s 55.2 per 100,000 represented a 59 percent rise. Indeed, Baltimore’s rate is its highest in the past three decades, by a significant margin.

No one should respond to these data, troubling though they are, with undue alarm, much less panic. In many of the cities Wonkblog analyzed, the murder rate increases last year represented upticks from what were still, in historical terms, low levels. New York’s rate, for example, increased from 3.9 per 100,000 to 4.1 per 100,000, a statistical variation that still fits within its longer-term downward trend line. Nor do law enforcement authorities understand the causes of last year’s murder increases well enough to prescribe a remedy. The oft-cited “Ferguson effect,” for example, whereby police purportedly have balked at aggressive law enforcement for fear of public criticism, may or may not be real.

Yet under-reaction can be risky, too. The only truly acceptable homicide rate is, of course, zero. Behind Wonkblog’s statistics are human beings, 767 of whom would still be with their families today if our 50 largest cities had simply managed to hold their 2015 homicide rates steady at 2014 levels. A nation that sets its sights on a “moonshot” to cure cancer can surely sustain ambitious goals for reducing violent man-made deaths. Recent experience with surging big-city violence needs to be studied carefully, but urgently, and solutions tried in the same spirit. Having cut the national homicide rate by about half in the past quarter-century, why not set a goal of halving it again, and in less time? At a minimum, 2015 must be the last year of backsliding.

Editorial by The Washington Post


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