An unrelenting surge in gun violence and murder is gripping American cities even before the habitual summer spike in crime, leaving police brass from New York to New Orleans scrambling for solutions.
With states lifting Covid-19 restrictions and more people out in warmer weather, US cities are preparing for a potentially bloody summer by bulking up patrols in high-crime neighborhoods, putting rookie officers on the streets and increasing overtime spending.
Several law enforcement officials and policing experts interviewed by CNN acknowledged alarming shooting and homicide numbers so far this year following jumps in violent crime not seen in more than a decade.
In fact, major US cities are experiencing historic murder rates after 2020 saw a 33% increase in homicides as the pandemic swept the country and millions joined protests against racial injustice and police brutality.
“The whole nature of proactive policing is being questioned at the same time you’re seeing increases in murders and shootings,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group.
“It’s challenging to be a police officer right now but it’s also from a police chief’s standpoint. They’re not getting much sleep.”
‘This is a call to action’
Over the weekend, at least 16 people were fatally shot and more than 40 injured across the United States. That included five people killed in Chicago and eight others gunned down in mass shootings in Oregon, Indiana, Utah, and Michigan.
More than 8,600 people have died from gun violence in the US this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, with over 260 mass shootings through Wednesday.
“The speed of the increase, the acceleration, as we’re coming out of the coronavirus this year, is of concern,” William Bratton, former top cop in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, said of the rise in violent crime. “And the breadth of it, the fact that just about every major American city, let alone the suburbs, are experiencing significant crime increases, particularly shootings and murders.”
In Oakland, where five people were wounded in a shooting over the weekend, Police Chief LaRonne Armstrong said the city has had 57 homicides this year. Oakland had 102 homicides all of last year, the highest total in eight years.
“This is a call to action,” said Armstrong, noting that the city’s data-driven Ceasefire strategy has led to the recovery of hundreds of handguns since April. “We need to think about enforcement, but also prevention. Not one or the other can work independently.”
In New York City, where shootings increased by 73% in last month compared to May 2020, officials this week announced a partnership between the NYPD and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). The effort is intended to reduce gun violence and stop the flow of illegal guns into New York City.
NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said the speed in the delivery of federal gun information under the new partnership will help the city solve cases.
“Where we can get information on guns that are recovered, connect them to other crimes hopefully, put them in the investigators hands quicker, and really use that information to close crimes out,” he said.
In the nation’s capital, Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee III last week acknowledged expectations of a post-pandemic summer crime wave.
“I share in those concerns with many of my colleagues, as major city chiefs across the country are, even before the restrictions were lifted, we (saw) increases in crime,” he said.
“I think we have to continue to work very closely with our communities. We have to continue to build on those relationships but most importantly when people commit crimes in our city we have to be prepared as a city to bring those individuals to justice.”
In May, Contee kicked off the district’s annual summer crime initiative, saying the department is “laser focused” on six areas of the city “that have historically experienced a high density of violent crime.”
In Atlanta, Police Chief Rodney Bryant on Wednesday outlined the department’s plan to combat the summer crime surge. The city reported 57 murders through the end of May compared to 35 during the same time last year.
Key components of the plan include stepping up patrols at clubs and businesses that attract juveniles and have been sources of what Bryant called “nightlife” trouble. The department will also aggressively target repeat offenders.
“It’s very frustrating,” Bryant said. “That’s problematic when you are arresting someone – be it a juvenile or an adult – and they are back out at the same location the next day.”
So many factors at play
Adam Gelb, president of Council on Criminal Justice, said being a police chief right now has to be the “toughest job in America.”
“The social, and economic and political waves generated by the pandemic and the protests are all coming together and crashing down right on your desk,” he said
“And to unpack that further: How much of the rising gun violence is the police withdrawing from communities? How much of it is communities withdrawing from police? How much of it is enhanced gun sales? How much it is frayed nerves? How much of it is economic and social isolation and, in some cases, desperation.”
In the first three months of this year, the homicide rate in more than 30 US cities increased by 24% compared to the same time period in 2020, according to the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. Gun assaults jumped by 22%.
Although the current spike in homicides remains below the peaks seen in the mid-1990s, the commission said in a report, murder rates have been increasing since late 2019, months before the height of the pandemic.
A number of factors may have contributed to the rise in gun violence, according to experts. They include the economic collapse, de-policing in major cities after protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, shifts in law enforcement resources to downtown areas because of the protests, and the release of criminal defendants pretrial or before sentences were completed to reduce risk of Covid-19 spread in jails.
“The worst thing we could do is try to attribute one factor to what’s occurring nationwide,” Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina said. “It’s very complex and all this complexity kind of got compounded by Covid.”
Experts also point to a surge in US gun sales that started last year and continued in 2021.
In March, the FBI reported almost 4.7 million background checks – the most of any month since the agency started keeping track more than 20 years ago, and a whopping 77% increase over March 2019.
“Without a doubt a trend is the increase in violent crime and it’s going to take us some time to work through this,” said Medina, who department saw a 75% jump in homicides in the first quarter of this year.
Criminals are ‘more brazen’
Miami-Dade County in Florida had 41 homicides through May 23, the same amount as at this point in 2020. Last week, police in the county released surveillance video that showed three masked suspects who opened fire at a crowd outside a concert venue on March 30, leaving three people dead and at least 20 others wounded.
“We will not allow a small group of bad actors, to define this community, to terrorize our community and we must put an end and we will put an end to these senseless killing,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Tuesday.
The mayor said police had arrested about 170 people and taken more than 60 guns off the street since the county launched “Operation Summer Heat” last weekend to stem gun violence.
“Gun violence is a public health epidemic that only intensified throughout the pandemic – 2020 saw a 13% increase in homicides from the year prior and a 45% increase from 2016,” said the summary of an anti-gun violence initiative approved by the county commission this week. “Nearly one in four victims in 2020 was younger than 21 years old.”
New Orleans Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said his department has investigated as many as nine homicides, 23 nonfatal shootings and 15 armed robberies in the last two weeks.
“Our criminals are becoming more brazen, more bolder in their actions,” Ferguson told reporters Tuesday. “They have escalated their activities and behavior to be more violent.”
Nine people were injured in a shooting at a pool party over the weekend, said Ferguson, who added that pandemic-related disruptions in the court system had emboldened criminals.
“Literally everybody seems to think that the police chief is the one who has the responsibility to fix this and to almost do it alone,” Gelb said.
“Public safety isn’t the sole province of the police. It’s a partnership with communities and with government agencies and corrections agencies, substance abuse and mental health agencies, social services and employment agencies all have critical real time roles to play. They need to step up and be held accountable as well.”
CNN’s Ryan Young, Jason Morris, Hayley Simonson, Abbey Clark, Jade Gordon, Kristina Sgueglia, Artemis Moshtaghian, Omar Jimenez, Deanna Hackney, Hollie Silverman, Evan Simko-Bednarski, Jamiel Lynch, Kelsie Smith, Leyla Santiago and Sara Weisfeldt contributed to this report.