Murders On The Rise In Major U.S. Cities
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Murders are on the rise in many American cities this year after years of decline. A survey released this week by The New York Times found homicides have increased in more than 30 U.S. cities. Many reasons have been suggested - gang rivalries, the supply of guns on the street and the charge that police officers may now be less aggressive because of heightened scrutiny and outrage from the public over policing in innercity neighborhoods. The increase has been highest in St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, but New York, Chicago and Dallas are close behind. At the top of this tragic list is Milwaukee, where there has been a 76 percent increase in homicides. We're joined now by Milwaukee's chief of police, Edward Flynn. Chief Flynn, thanks very much for speaking with us.
EDWARD FLYNN: Hello.
SIMON: What's going on in your city?
FLYNN: Well, what's going on in my city is a similar dynamic of what's taking place in other cities across the United States right now. We've had 130 percent increase in homicides related to arguments and fights between individuals or groups unrelated to other criminal activity. They've got easy access to firearms. We've seen all of these cities have seen many more shots fired at each individual incident. Some places it's a fight over synthetic drug markets. So there are a number of variables, but they all revolve around a fairly narrow slice of these advantage communities that is very concerning.
SIMON: Chief Flynn, not so long ago, you were getting credit for a low homicide rate. What changed?
FLYNN: It's hard to say what one thing changed quite honestly. One thing we know - our violence is overwhelmingly concentrated in our disadvantaged neighborhoods characterized by high rates of intergenerational poverty. That's a constant in every single city. But we don't understand is what series of other changes that appear unrelated have coalesced to suddenly create a dramatic increase. I think that requires more research than the police departments can marshal by themselves.
SIMON: Is there what has been called a Ferguson effect - police being less aggressive about policing in certain neighborhoods because they feel they're being scrutinized and second-guessed?
FLYNN: There's no doubt that, to some extent, officers are looking over their shoulder. You know, every night the nightly news leads with the latest shooting or homicide, almost invariably showing pictures of young African-American men.
Now, that's not national news nor should it be, all right? That's not something that should be used to judge an entire category of young men nor should it be. But our officers know that a single cellphone video from anywhere in America is going to be on every single network television station, and it's going to be used to indict the efforts of every police officer.
I mean, I've had reports of officers out there wrestling with wanted felons being surrounded by crowds of people, none of whom rendered assistance, but all of whom had their cellphone recordings on. But certainly there is a sense that the average officer there feels that they're going to be judged unfairly in ambiguous circumstances. The essence of the job is dealing with ambiguity, stress and violence all at the same time, hoping to make the right decision. And sometimes you may be wrong trying to do the right thing. Officers do not believe that they're going to get even the slightest benefit of the doubt right now.
SIMON: We have to note that there was another shooting of a policeman this week pretty close to Milwaukee in Fox Lake, Ill. Has that concern increased on your force?
FLYNN: Well, I mean, our officers function in the most violent, heavily armed society in the Western or Eastern industrialized world, OK? No other nation comes close. You know, my fear, and the fear of many of us in this business, is the tenor of the national news media coverage of policing in this last year has managed to somehow make police officers the other, OK? They're not being treated as though they're human beings in stressful occupations doing hard and dangerous work. Overwhelmingly appropriately, every one of them out there is judged by a perceived atrocity anywhere in America.
SIMON: But Chief, surely you understand the number of stories that the news media has had to do over the past year in which police conduct has been called into question when unarmed men have been shot, you know, have been killed.
FLYNN: I'm not saying that these aren't newsworthy. They're certainly intensely newsworthy where they happen. What I am disturbed about is everybody's taking the easy way out. It's a lot easier to demonize a profession than it is to say, my God, 300,000 African-American men have been murdered in the last 30 years. What does that mean? What does that mean and what are we doing about the conditions that breed that?
It's a lot easier to organize an angry constituency and get on TV railing against the police. But a lot of these most vocal so-called activists that I hear from, I never see at a community meeting, never see at a neighborhood meeting, never see at the grassroots level. The local people and their cops have their sleeves rolled up trying to do something about these issues.
SIMON: Edward Flynn is the police chief of Milwaukee, Wis. Thanks so much for being with us, Chief.
FLYNN: Thank you very much for the time. I appreciate it. It was generous. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.