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Violent Crime Has Stayed High — Whether Police Are The Answer Is Up For Debate

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

With Memorial Day weekend upon us and the start of summer with it, cities around the country are bracing themselves for more violent crime. Shootings and murders have been up sharply, intensifying the debate over how police should respond or, as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, whether police are even the answer in the aftermath of last summer's protests.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Jeff Asher is a crime analyst who's been collecting murder numbers for cities that post their monthly statistics. And he says in those places, murder is up this year 23.5%. That's over the same period last year.

JEFF ASHER: You know, we'll probably have the most murders this year since we had since 1994, 1995. And that's just tragic. And the question is, how long does it take us to get back to 2014, where we had historically low numbers?

KASTE: Asher says understanding the nature of this wave of violence and what the drivers might be is key to reducing it. What we know so far is that it's mostly murders that are up, not other kinds of crime, which is unusual. And the police think the shootings are more indiscriminate. Take what happened on Tuesday near the George Floyd Memorial in Minneapolis, where an AP television reporter was surprised by the sound of at least 20 gunshots.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

PHILIP CROWTHER: Just going to be careful here with some gunshots. Excuse us. Excuse us.

CHRIS DAVIS: Just the number of shots fired at incidents has gone way up.

KASTE: That's Deputy Police Chief Chris Davis in Portland, Ore., where they're breaking records for murder.

DAVIS: We have had some incidents with over 100 rounds fired from multiple different weapons, and so you have people ganging up.

KASTE: The Portland police keep a running count of the number of shell casings that they collect at these scenes - 6,000 casings over the last 12 months. In New York, increased shootings worry Jackie Rowe-Adams, the head of an antiviolence group called Harlem Mothers S.A.V.E.

JACKIE ROWE-ADAMS: I've been in New York all my life, and I've never seen anything - I've seen changes, but not like this, the hatred and anger.

KASTE: People angry at each other, she says, but also angry at the police. And that's where she sees one cause for the current violence - the pullback of certain kinds of policing after last year's protests.

ROWE-ADAMS: We can turn it around, but we need our police. Let's be very clear. We need our police, and we need to get the respect back.

KASTE: But on this point, many other younger Black activists part ways with her.

MAURICE MITCHELL: Policing doesn't prevent violence, right?

KASTE: That's Maurice Mitchell, an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives. He says he takes the current violence seriously, but it's still better to stick with the defund the police message that gained so much traction last year.

MITCHELL: Money simply into having more and more police patrol particular communities and not provide resources on the community side, it's just not going to work.

KASTE: The Biden administration is trying to satisfy both of these points of view with a new antiviolence crime strategy that prioritizes building trust between police and communities and focuses on what it calls the most significant drivers of gun violence. Meanwhile, some police departments are trying to reframe traditional anticrime units as more in tune with the times. Portland, for instance, last year got rid of an anti-gun unit that was accused of targeting Black men. Now Deputy Chief Davis says it's going to be reconstituted but with civilian involvement.

DAVIS: And then the job of this combined community and police group will be to come together on an approach and tactics to use to go out and address the problem in the community, which will probably look different.

KASTE: But reimagined units like this take time to create. In the short term, departments like Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis are short-staffed following a recent wave of early retirements. That's forcing departments to be more reactive, focusing on more urgent calls for service instead of crime prevention. Analyst Jeff Asher says the question now going into summer is whether the increase in violence will ease along with the pandemic or whether, for whatever complicated societal reasons, the higher rate of murder is now America's new normal. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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