Sunday, September 26, 2021
Sept. 26, 2021

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Westneat: ‘Don’t have a clue’

Washington set a record for homicides in 2020, but no one knows why

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Last year was terrible. But it’s only now starting to come into view just how off it was. The year 2020 was one for the record books — and not in a good way.

This month the local association of police chiefs released their annual report showing crime and arrest data for 211 cities, counties and tribes around Washington. They’ve been doing this since 1980 — and this one was alarming.

It paints a picture of a loss of roughly two decades of steady progress in public safety, happening suddenly in a single year.

The state set a record for homicides in 2020, with 302. That topped the previous high of 297 in 1994. We’re a much bigger state now, so the murder rate, adjusted for population, still is lower than it was back then. But that rate jumped 45 percent last year — a record leap for a single year, according to the data.

This eruption happened in varying degrees all over the country. Criminologists can only speculate why.

“It was the largest recorded increase in homicides in United States history,” said Jeff Asher, a crime data specialist who has written a number of analyses of what may be going on. (His short answer: It’s complicated, from stresses of the pandemic to more guns on the streets to fewer police officers roaming around to a “pullback” in relations between the public and police.)

One thing jumps out from our local data: The blame for the spike in homicides pretty obviously cannot be laid on the “defund the police” budget-cutting efforts that sprang up in some cities, such as Seattle. The data released last week by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs shows that murder also soared in countless places that didn’t go down the anti-police path.

Homicides tripled in some cities that didn’t defund police, such as Renton, Kent and Spokane. Yakima County, a politically red part of the state, saw the most murders in its history.

“I don’t have a clue,” a police detective for the Yakima County sheriff told the Yakima Herald-Republic when asked the cause of this surge. “In so many cases, you know the who, what, where, when and how, but you never know why.”

Defunding the police may make it harder to catch killers once they’ve killed — the data shows Seattle police, as of April 2021, had made only 15 arrests in the city’s 52 murders last year. It’s also easy to imagine that shrinking the police force might embolden some criminals. But the rash of homicide everywhere suggests other factors were almost certainly at work.

“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 is it frayed nerves? How much of it is economic and social isolation and, in some cases, desperation?” said Adam Gelb, president of the Council on Criminal Justice, which has been studying the surge.

Criminologists tend to be police focused, but some have pointed out that the loss of schools, mentors, social workers and sports leagues during the pandemic may have had an incalculable impact. Tragically, the number of murder victims who were teenagers or younger soared in Washington in 2020, to 37 from 21 in 2019. This deserves far more attention and focus than it’s gotten to date.

“I don’t have a clue,” as the one detective said, may be the most honest summation for such an uncharted year. In Seattle, arson set a modern record, nearly doubling in a year (probably related to the police protests last summer and fall). But some other property crimes like theft dropped, maybe due to lockdowns.

The murder spree is not letting up in 2021 — the city of Kent, for example, has already exceeded its homicide totals for all of last year. The Council on Criminal Justice summed up the national trends like this: “The pandemic, social unrest and other factors have combined to create a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances.”

It’s theoretically simple to end the pandemic: Everybody just get vaccinated. But the perfect storm described here? Slogans aren’t going to cut it.

It’s going to take a major city and statewide effort — to rejuvenate the pandemic-frayed social network, to get guns off the streets and to institute smarter, more focused, more community-involved policing.

You can’t “defund” your way out of a perfect storm. For starters, it’ll take more money, not less. I’d look for candidates that at least seem to recognize that.

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