Rhetoric is not the solution to surge in violence

Matthew T. Mangino, The Daily Record Newswire

The number of homicides increased in the first three months of 2016 in more than two dozen major cities across the country and that trend seems to be continuing into the first half of the year.

The data showed particularly significant increases in homicides in six cities —Chicago, Dallas, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Memphis— according to The New York Times.

FBI Director James B. Comey said “Something is happening . . . I don’t know what the answer is, but holy cow, do we have a problem.”

Here is what Comey thinks: the problem is a link between rising crime and less aggressive policing — he called it the “viral video effect.” According to Comey, the viral video effect is the result of a string of aggressive, sometimes lethal, police videos that went viral on the internet and led some officers to become reluctant to confront suspects.

In reality, the viral video effect is a substitute for a more controversial label coined last year, the “Ferguson Effect.” It took its name from the Missouri city where protests erupted after a white police officer fatally shot a black 18-year-old in 2014.

Not everyone agrees with Comey.

“This administration makes policy decisions that are rooted in evidence, that are rooted in science,” Josh Earnest, The White House press secretary, said according to The Washington Post. “We can’t make broad, sweeping policy decisions or draw policy conclusions based on anecdotal evidence. That’s irresponsible and ultimately counterproductive.”

Earnest said it was a problem that some cities “are experiencing a troubling surge in violent crime . . . But there’s not evidence at this point to link that surge in violent crime to the so-called viral video effect, or the Ferguson effect. There’s just no evidence to substantiate that.”

Ironically, academics, practitioners and politicians have been grappling with why violent crime rates had dropped so precipitously since the high-water mark in the mid-1990s. Since 1993, the survey indicates the rate of violent crime had declined from 79.8 victimizations per 100,000 to 23.2 per 100,000.

Why had violent crime rates fallen so dramatically? Criminologists continue to debate the reasons for the decline. Theories abound from a decline in the demand for crack cocaine, technological advancements, policing strategies, incarceration rates, even abortion and the decline of lead in the air.

Now, those same people are struggling to understand the sharp increases in violent crime in many major cities.

In cities where more killings are occurring, “those homicides are not randomly distributed around the city,” said Richard Berk, a professor of statistics and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Berk established a forecasting tool for the Philadelphia Adult Department of Probation and Parole that sought to predict those probationers who were most likely to commit murder and therefore were in need of more intensive supervision.

“Crime, like politics, is local,” Berk told The Washington Post. “This stuff all occurs in neighborhoods on much more local levels. … It’s not about a city as a whole, it’s about neighborhoods.”

So why can’t scholars like Berk come together and collaboratively find the reason, or reasons, for rising urban violence and search for an evidence-based solution. Director Comey’s foray into anecdotal theories is a part of a larger problem.

Unsubstantiated rhetoric leads to fear. America’s level of concern about crime and violence is at its highest point in 15 years, according to a Gallup Poll. Fifty-three percent of U.S. adults say they personally worry “a great deal” about crime and violence.

The criminal justice system is plagued by politics and political posturing. Politicians thrive on fear. If there is a concern with violent crime nationwide, there will be 50 different solutions proposed by 50 different state legislatures.

Imagine if the medical profession solved problems in the same manner. Policymakers need to move away from the rhetoric and adopt science-based solutions to crime and violence.

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Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book, “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010,” was recently released by McFarland Publishing.

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