Policing alone cannot rid
American cities of violence
By By Tony Favro, Senior Fellow, City Mayors Research
ON THIS PAGE: US cities faced with increasing violence ||| Purging cities of guns ||| Progressive city versus conservative hinterland ||| Using guns to score political points ||| Violence as a political weapon ||| Reducing poverty reduces crime ||| Fighting crime beyond policing ||| Conclusion ||| Endnotes
ON OTHER PAGES: US Supreme Court versus City Halls ||| US mayors defend women’s right ||| Mayors push for gun control ||| Massacres will not change gun culture ||| US mayors caught up in nation’s culture war ||| American mayors ||| Women mayors in America ||| New York’s Borough Presidents
US cities faced with
August 2022: A high level of violence is a “problem that is hitting our entire nation right now,” Mayor Eric Adams of New York City told US broadcaster CNN in April 2022 about the rise in violent crime involving guns in the US over the past two years. (1)
Between 2019 and 2020, murders rose 34 per cent in cities with a population of 250,000 or more, 20 per cent in suburban areas, and 19.7 per cent in rural areas. More than three-quarters of murders were committed with firearms. The number of gun assaults also rose nationwide. In 2021, gun violence appears to have continued to increase, but at a slower pace. (2)
While still far below the peak crime rates of the late 1990s, the rise in violent crimes has prompted a search for causes and solutions. It’s a “herculean task,” said Mayor Adams in the same CNN interview. “There are many rivers that feed the sea of violence in our city and in our country.”
Local policing is the responsibility of local governments in the United States, and there are approximately 18,000 local police departments in the US. It is important for mayors and local officials to understand the drivers of violent crime, particularly the intersection between problems with policing and broader problems in American society.
Purging cities of guns
“We are a society that is awash in guns,” notes Ralph Richard Banks, a professor at Stanford Law School and leading researcher of crime in the US. Americans comprise just over 4 per cent of the total world population but account for 50 per cent of the world’s civilian-owned firearms. And Americans’ gun ownership is increasing: the two highest years of gun sales in US history were 2020 and 2021. “I find it difficult to imagine creating the sort of safe communities we want so long as such weapons are so plentiful,” says Banks. (3)
Many American cities have programs to remove illegal guns from circulation, ranging from arrest and confiscation to no-questions-asked purchases of guns. Los Angeles, for example, reports that the city’s police department took nearly 65,000 firearms from the streets since Eric Garcetti became mayor in 2013. “We know that fewer guns mean fewer chances for the accidents, tragedies, and crimes that devastate our families and communities," Garcetti explained. (4)
Data support the mayors’ logic of removing guns to reduce crime. Research by The Atlantic magazine found that many guns are purchased with the intent to commit crime: nearly a quarter of all crimes using firearms are committed within six months of a weapon’s purchase. The research suggests that a massive increase in gun sales in early 2020 led to additional murders. Another study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab finds a correlation between more people carrying guns and more murders in Chicago. (5)
Progressive city versus
However, mayors are rowing against strong political and social currents beyond their control in their efforts to regulate the flow of guns. "We are being inundated with guns from states that have virtually no gun control, no background checks, no ban on assault weapons," Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, pointing out that about 60 per cent of the guns used in crimes in Chicago are trafficked from states with weaker gun laws that those of her city. (6)
Mayors’ political support for reducing the number of illegal guns in circulation often dwindles outside city limits. "You just can’t go take somebody’s gun,” asserted Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina when discussing a bipartisan gun safety bill passed by Congress and signed into law in June by President Biden. The law does not ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, actions supported by President Biden and the majority of Americans. The law expands background checks to purchase firearms and includes funds for initiatives aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of those who pose a danger to themselves or others, as well as for crisis intervention programs like drug courts and mental health courts, among other measures. (7)
"I think most Americans believe that all these shooters have one thing in common,” Senator Graham continued about his support for the federal bill. “They’re disturbed. They’re talking about violence. They’re acting out. And we do nothing about it until it’s too late." (8)
Placing the onus for gun violence on mentally ill individuals resonates with the American public. A recent poll found that more than half of Americans believe school shootings are “acts of mental illness” rather than gun-related acts of violence. (9)
In other words, people are the problem, not guns. And this message often comes from the political leadership.
Using guns to score political points
The Washington Post has documented how Republican office holders and candidates for elected office frequently carry weapons in their advertising, holiday greetings, and other communications with the public. The Post article notes, “the images [of gun-toting Republicans] have in recent years become more prevalent, and intentionally provocative.” They are emotional appeals based on fear that implicitly lay out a problem - the potential danger from wanton gun violence - and offer a solution: an ability to protect oneself, one’s family, and one’s constitutional rights that supposedly comes with “responsible” gun ownership. (10)
The potential perpetrators of gun violence are also implied in these communications. During the 2016 presidential election campaign and continuously throughout his administration, former President Donald Trump and his supporters painted a portrait of (predominantly white) suburbs under siege from Democrat-run (and predominantly minority) inner cities, which Trump declared were “more dangerous than war zones”. (11)
The Republican advertising and Trump and his supporters also promote, implicitly or explicitly, guns and violence as a means to achieve political aims. The Select Committee of the US House of Representatives investigating the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol established that President Trump knew many in the crowd he addressed that day carried weapons, and still he encouraged them to march on the Capitol. The rancor about a “stolen election” that led to the violent insurrection at the US Capitol continues to be loudly echoed by Trump supporters in state legislatures and on social media. More than 30 states have passed or are considering legislation that restrict voting and/or make contested election results more likely and more difficult to resolve. (12)
Violence as a political weapon
A survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found that 29 per of all Americans, including 39 per cent of Republicans, agreed that “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions”. A similar poll by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that 18 per cent of Americans, including 30 per cent of Republicans, believed that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country”. Variations of the phrase “true American patriots” were frequently used by President Trump to compliment people who supported him, or whose support he needed, including the rioters that stormed the Capitol building. (13)
Neighborhoods across America are dotted with homes flying an American flag with 13 stars in a circle that was originally designed during the American Revolutionary war. Sometimes the flags include the date “1776”. The message intended by flying these flags is that “revolution is an option”. Today, unlike 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was adopted, there is no clearly defined enemy, no specific grievances, no recognized leaders of a revolution, and no clear vision of a post-revolutionary society. What unites many of today’s wavers of a revolutionary-war-era flag is a murky rage against the federal government.
“I want to understand white rage,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress. General Milley was speaking about the almost exclusively white and male mob that stormed the Capitol building. “What is it that caused thousands of people to assault this building and try to overturn the Constitution of the United States of America?” Milley asked Congress. “I want to find that out.” The rage, which Milley views as a threat to American democracy and national security, is characterized, in large measure, by a faith in the efficacy of violence based on a questionable reading of the past. (14)
A self-serving understanding of history is not limited to citizens, enraged or not, who regard themselves as “patriots” and kindred spirits of those who fought in the 18th century American Revolution. In June 2022, the US Supreme Court struck down a New York City law which regulated the carrying of firearms in public. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas relied on an historical analysis to overturn the law. Rather than an “honest reading of history”, the Supreme Court majority “ransacked the historical record”, picking and choosing selective evidence to justify its ruling, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. As a result, New York and seven other states with similar laws, home to approximately 80 million Americans, “can expect to interact with more people with deadly weapons.” (15)
Reducing poverty reduces crime
History came to the forefront during the 2020 protests in US cities after the deaths of George Floyd and other people of color at the hands of police. The protests highlighted racial disparities that continue a half century after the American Civil Rights movement. The wealth gap between white and Black Americans, for example, has not decreased measurably since Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. led protests for racial justice in the late 1960s.
Since the 2020 protests, however, few white Americans are unaware of the meaning of white privilege or of the existence of deep structural problems in American society that make some communities, especially the poorest, more susceptible to violence than others.
Despite former President’s Trump’s claims during the 2020 protests that Democrat-run cities were cesspools of violence, data show that murders rose nearly equally in cities run by Republicans and cities run by Democrats between 2019 and 2020, and states governed by Republicans experienced some of the highest murder rates of all. The data reveal “the fundamental inaccuracy of attempting to politicize a problem as complex as crime. Instead, the evidence points to broad national causes driving rising crime.” (16)
At the national and state government levels, programs designed to cut poverty are increasingly recognized as forming part of the solution to crime. Evidence shows that expanding health insurance for low-income individuals and families reduces arrest rates as well as recidivism among people who had been imprisoned. In contrast, reducing access to benefits such as income for disabled Americans appears to increase crime and incarceration. During the pandemic, direct payments from the federal government to parents and guardians for each child under their care reduced poverty rates. Summer youth employment programs have been shown to reduce crime by providing needed income and creating structure for vulnerable youth during their time away from school. (17)
Unfortunately, politicians and policy makers do not always build on this strong foundation of research. Congress did not continue direct payments for children for partisan political reasons, and child poverty rates have risen across the US. The US Supreme Court struck down New York City’s gun law in June despite evidence that New York and other states with similar laws have lower rates of gun crime than elsewhere. (18)
Fighting crime beyond policing
Policing in America is “radically decentralized” says Professor Ralph Richard Banks and, “with some 18,000 different law enforcement agencies in the United States, attaining widespread adoption of the right policies and practices is no easy matter.” (19)
Mayors and local governments also must raise most of the money they need to deliver the services they provide, including law enforcement. Many local officials are loath to raise taxes and look for other sources of revenue, including, for example, fines assessed to those charged crimes, fees charged to the federal government for holding federal prisoners in local jails, and the seizure of cash and property from those suspected of certain crimes. Such practices disproportionately burden the poor and people of color financially, as well as keep them entangled in the criminal justice system. In the worst cases, local governments structure their budgets around “user-funded justice”. After the killing of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, it was revealed that Missouri state law permits local governments to source 20 per cent of their revenues from fines and fees. Ferguson police were incentivized to maximize revenues, which led to questionable, even outrageous, policing tactics. (20)
Despite the challengesfrom issues beyond their control such as the huge number of privately-owned guns in the US to state and national partisan politics to financial pressures - American cities of all sizes seem to be coalescing around a new perspective of criminal justice that extends beyond the domain of policing.
Several mayors have followed the lead of Stockton, California’s then-Mayor Michael Tubbs to establish guaranteed income programs to help lift people from poverty.
Cities from Baltimore to Los Angeles are allocating or reallocating funds for mental health services. Denver and Rochester have model programs to redirect mental health calls for service from the police to mental health specialists. A police department accounts for 30 to 40 per cent or more of many cities’ budgets. Reallocating calls for service to professionals with better skills than police to address low-level, nonviolent incidents makes financial sense and relieves police officers of unnecessary responsibilities.
New York City banned “qualified immunity”, a court doctrine that prevents police officers and other government officials from being held financially liable for their misconduct. Qualified immunity is considered by many to be a barrier to police accountability and, therefore, public trust in law enforcement.
Many cities such as Minneapolis have instituted stronger disciplinary action against officers who engage in misconduct, new detailed requirements for reporting use-of-force incidents, and mandatory use of body cameras by police. Cities across the US are enhancing municipal employee training for implicit bias, such as police reliance on hunches and pretexts to stop pedestrians or pull over cars, actions which too often end up targeting Black Americans and other marginalized racial groups and often turn violent. Many police departments have begun training police officers in de-escalation tactics for stops that are justified, and many are instituting new programs and policies for crisis intervention and early intervention. Many cities are also examining their recruitment, hiring, retention, and data management practices for biases in all departments, including police. (21)
One result is a renewed emphasis across the United States on community-oriented policing. “When you focus on building solid relationship[s] in communities of color, things like excessive aggressiveness and implicit bias begin to diminish,” says Richard Aborn, president of the nonpartisan Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. (22)
The promise of this new perspective is that it looks at policing and other government services through an equity lens. Its point of departure is the awareness that local government and local policing in America operate within a society with stark economic and racial inequalities.
Mayors, city administrators, and officials in state and federal government also recognize that local police departments are only one layer of a complex criminal justice system that includes local, state, and federal courts and local, state, and federal prisons.
And the entire criminal justice system is one aspect of a society that limits opportunities for education, employment, health care, and housing for certain groupsparticularly African Americansand contributes to myriad racial and economic disparities.
Increasingly, programs and policies are expected to consider inequality at the local, state, and federal levels, regarding not only criminal justice but all services provided by government.
In January 2022, 143 US city mayors, through the US Conference of Mayors, signed a Mayors’ Compact on Racial Equity. The Compact, according to Austin, Texas Mayor Steve Adler, commits the mayors to “take concrete steps and be held accountable for specific action in their communities to advance racial justice”. In separate remarks about her city’s specific strategy to increase equity, Charlotte, North Carolina Mayor Vi Lyles noted, “The issues we face as a community are bigger, broader and more deep-seated than any one organization can address alone.” (23)
The challenge for US city mayors is to maintain the momentum for social and economic justice, within government at all levels and within the broader society, to get more people and organizations involved so the future does not copy the past. The challenge is to show, in the words of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, “It is in all our interests to take steps to reduce inequities in housing, education, the environment and economy.” (24)
(1) Moshtaghian, Artemis. Mayor: The Entire Nation Is Facing High Level of Violence, Not Just New York City. CNN. 12 April 2022.
(2) FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program. Crime in the United States, 2020. Tables 1A, 12, 20.
Rosenfeld, Richard and Ernesto Lopez. Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities: Year-End 2021 Update. Council on Criminal Justice. January 2022.
(3) Driscoll-Stanford, Sharon. Two Years After George Floyd’s Murder, What’s Changed? Futurity. 26 May 2022.
(4) Guilfoil, Kyla. What Big City Mayors Are Saying About Gun Control. ABC News. 14 June 2022.
(5) Asher, Jeff and Arthur, Rob. The Data Are Pointing to One Major Driver of America’s Murder Spike. The Atlantic. 10 January 2022.
(6) O’Connor, Tom. Chicago Mayor Blames Other States With 'No Gun Control' for City's Increasing Violence. Newsweek. 26 July 2020.
(7) Cunnington, Jessica. 7 NY Mayors to Launch New Effort Against Gun Violence Following Mass Shootings. NBN New York. 31 May 2022.
(9) Khaled, Fatima. Over Half of Americans Don't See School Shootings as a 'Guns Problem': Poll. Newsweek. 2 June 2022.
(10) Itkowitz, Colby. Guns Are All Over GOP Ads and Social Media, Prompting Some Criticism. The Washington Post. 31 May 2022.
(11) Jacobs, Ben. Trump: Inner Cities Run by Democrats Are More Dangerous Than War Zones. The Guardian. 23 August 2016.
(12) Grisales, Claudia. Trump Said He Knew Jan. 6 Crowd Members Had Weapons, Ex-White House Aide Testified. NPR. 28 June 2022.
Brennan Center for Justice. Election Integrity website.
(13) Cox, Daniel. After the Ballots Are Counted: Conspiracies, Political Violence, and American Exceptionalism: Findings from the January 2021 American Perspectives Survey. American Enterprise Institute. 11 February 2021.
Public Religion Research Institute. Ahead of Anniversary of 1/6 Insurrection, Republicans Remain Entangled in the Big Lie, QAnon, and Temptations Toward Political Violence. 4 January 2022.
Shahrigian, Shant. Trump Praises Jan. 6 Rioters as ‘Patriots’ and ‘Peaceful People’. New York Daily News. 11 July 2021.
(14) Horton, Alex. Top U.S. Military Leader: ‘I Want to Understand White Rage. And I’m White.’ The Washington Post. 23 June 2021.
(15) Waldman, Michael. Originalism Run Amok at the Supreme Court. Brennan Center for Justice. 28 June 2022.
Eric Ruben and Mella Pablo, Emil. A Second Amendment Right to Conceal and Carry? Brennan Center for Justice. 13 May 2022.
(16) Grawert, Ames and Kim, Noah. Myths and Realities: Understanding Recent Trends in Violent Crime. Brennan Center for Justice. 12 July 2022.
(17) Grawert and Kim.
(18) Waldman. Originalism Run Amok at the Supreme Court.
(20) Waldman, Michael. Perverse Financial Incentives in Criminal Justice. Brennan Center for Justice. 8 July 2022.
(21) Grawert and Kim.
U.S. Department of Justice. Law Enforcement Best Practices. 2019.
(22) Simkins, Chris. Investigations Call for US Police Reforms. Voice of America US News. 6 May 2022.
(23) Durr, Sara. 143 Mayors Sign Pledge on Racial Equity. The United States Conference of Mayors. 21 January 2022.
Best, Nepherterra. Newly Announced Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative Seeks to Raise a Quarter-of-a-Billion Dollars to Address Inequities and Boost Opportunity in Charlotte Mecklenburg. Mayor’s Racial Equity Initiative. 1 November 2021.
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