AAFTER GEORGE FLOYD’S murder a year ago, the mayor of Atlanta berated rioters who were destroying parts of his city. “It’s not a protest… It’s chaos,” Keisha Lance Bottoms said. “If you care about this city, then go home.” The speech got off to a good start that some excited pundits wondered if she could ever run for president. A year later, Ms Lance Bottoms even refused to run for reelection for mayor, in part because Atlanta is suffering from a wave of violent crime that she has been unable to quell. An affluent neighborhood is eager to separate itself from the city altogether.
What is true in Atlanta is also true in other American cities. Property crime is down, but violent crime has increased. Murders increased by around 30% between 2019 and 2020, a rise that shows little sign of slowing down. This change endangers what has perhaps been the most benign social trend in America so far this century: the great decline in crime. It also threatens liberal reforms, designed to reduce the prison population and rethink the police, which have swept across much of the United States over the past decade.
The case for criminal justice and police reform is easier to make when crime declines, as it had for 25 years. When voters are afraid, they become more receptive to punitive policies. The origins of the high incarceration rate in the United States, which stands at 700 inmates per 100,000 compared to 140 in Great Britain and 78 in Germany, lie in the wave of crime that lasted from the 1960s to the 1950s. 1990. A new wave of crime could lead to a repeat.
Meanwhile, reformers will find that while they have nothing to say about how to tackle growing crime, they will not be trusted to lead the city and county offices that control the decentralized justice system. the United States. Ms. Lance Bottoms is not alone. In other cities, mayors and prosecutors who thought they would be rewarded for championing reform in the name of racial justice are finding that voters place more importance on security.
What to do then? The causes of the current spike in killings are unclear, but likely stem from a mix of pandemic-related stresses on civilians and police, increased gun sales and police reluctance after the protests inspired by the death of Mr. Floyd. Police say they have not withdrawn from violent neighborhoods for fear of stoking tensions. But a similar spike in killings in Baltimore after protests against a high-profile police murder in 2015 suggests otherwise. Distrust between the police and those they control is bad for crime statistics. Without cooperation, murders become difficult to solve, and unsolved murders lead to retaliatory killings.
Part of the answer lies in restoring that trust by promoting community policing and hiring more officers. “Defund the police” is one of the most counterproductive political slogans of recent times and should be cast aside. People in high crime neighborhoods want accountable and efficient police services, not the abolition of police forces. The reform of police practices, which must remain a priority, will be more acceptable if the budgets are not at the same time slashed.
If locking people away eliminated crime, America would have already eradicated it. The link between crime and incarceration is weak. But more imprisonments could happen unless mayors, prosecutors and police control the killing. If Mr. Floyd’s legacy were a return to mass incarceration and more brutal policing, it would be stacking one tragedy on top of another. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Kill the reform”