Violent crime in cities like Hartford is rising again after decades of slowly falling, and nobody seems to know why. If something useful isn’t done soon, the political and social fallout could be disastrous.
Hartford’s been having a tough, violent year. Thus far, 21 people have been murdered in the city this year compared with 18 in all of 2014. Other cities throughout the northeast and the country have seen a rise in violent crime this year, and the public at large is starting to wake up to it.
The really worrisome part of all this is that no one knows why it’s happening, especially after two decades of steady decline in violent crime.
Police chiefs from around the country recently met in an urgent summit to discuss the violence, and at a news conference afterward suggested a few possible causes such as synthetic drugs, a profusion of guns on the streets, and gangs. Hartford’s police chief is trying to focus on stopping retaliatory attacks after crimes occur.
But for now, no one has a good solution for any of these problems. Gun control is nearly impossible to pass right now, it’s very hard to keep drugs and gangs out of cities, and the cycle of retaliation can be a very difficult one to break.
Another part of the problem is the broken trust between police and the communities they are supposed to protect. The senseless deaths of black men, women, and even children in police custody or at the hands of police have resulted in communities even less willing to work with a force they consider to be dangerous, unpredictable, and punitive. Police, on the other hand, may be scaling back some of the pre-emptive actions they’ve taken in the past to prevent crime.
Whatever the cause, we’re seeing violent crime happening at a rate we haven’t seen in 20 years and more. That’s cause for alarm on many levels.
Yes, we’re seeing levels of urban violence that remind us of the bad days of the 1980s and early 1990s, and yes, no one seems to really understand why.
What I worry about most, however, is that this could cause the shaky, tentative progress we’ve made on policing, prisons, and social justice vanish in a whirl of suburban panic.
Think about those years when violent crime was high — those are the years that gave us mandatory minimums, enhanced penalties for possession in “drug free school zones,” so-called “three strikes” laws, and worse. Those are the years that gave us bulging prisons and the “training school” model of juvenile justice.
All of those awful programs and policies came from the public’s fear of crime and their constant demand for politicians to get tough on criminals. Most of this fear is coming from white suburbanites, even though it’s urban people of color who have suffered most from the policies spawned from their fear.
We can’t afford to go back to that mindset, especially now.
We as a nation are only just now starting to emerge from the shadow of the War on Drugs and the incarceration frenzy that filled our jails and prisons. We are beginning to wake up to the huge number of injustices this system has caused. Criminal justice reform is slow, but it’s actually happening. President Obama has been leading the way on this, and states from Connecticut to Texas have been lowering the number of people they incarcerate.
States are rolling back mandatory minimums and loosening other sentencing guidelines. Here in Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s “Second Chance Society” program was signed into law this summer. The conversation on criminal justice is slowly shifting from punishing criminals to rehabilitation, prevention, and tolerance.
I worry that a violent summer could undo all of that.
Before we rush to throw people back in prison, we need to understand why this latest surge in violence is happening. That will take time, and it will require a thoughtful and open-minded examination of the facts.
We also must decide what the best course of action will be, not just from a policing or safety standpoint, but from a societal one. We must make sure that any actions we take won’t cause more harm than good.
And, lastly, we have to include those communities most affected by both the violence and whatever solutions we’ll undertake in creating the right response.
We let fear rule us too often. Let’s make sure that we keep our heads this time.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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