CHICAGO — Mayors of American cities have yearned for the moment they could usher in a return to normalcy, casting away coronavirus restrictions on bars, restaurants, parties and public gatherings.
Yet now, even with reopenings underway across the United States as the pandemic recedes, city leaders must contend with another crisis: a crime wave with no signs of ending.
They are cheerleading the return of office workers to downtowns and encouraging tourists to visit, eager to rejuvenate the economy and build public confidence. But they are also frantically trying to quell a surge of homicides, assaults and carjackings that began during the pandemic and has cast a chill over the recovery.
In Austin, Texas, for example, 14 people were injured early Saturday morning in a mass shooting as revelers jammed a popular downtown nightlife district.
Some city officials have touted progressive strategies focused on community policing in neighborhoods where trust between police officers and residents has frayed. Others have deployed more traditional tactics like increasing surveillance cameras in troubled areas and enforcing curfews in city parks to clear out crowds, as the police did in Washington Square Park in Manhattan in recent days.
In Chicago, which fully reopened on Friday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot made clear that her focus was on reducing violence over the summer, and that her administration would focus resources on 15 high-crime pockets of the city as part of that effort.
“We owe it to all of our residents, in every neighborhood, to bring peace and vibrancy back,” Ms. Lightfoot said.
Superintendent David Brown, the head of the Chicago Police Department, announced this month what he called a “transformative moment” for the department, a plan to add more officers in the Civil Rights Unit, which is specially trained to work with marginalized residents, including those who are homeless. The plan would also expand initiatives for youth in arts and sports.
Other cities, like Miami, are nearly free of pandemic restrictions and booming with tourists. This month, the top prosecutor in Miami-Dade County and local police leaders turned to the issue of public safety, announcing Operation Summer Heat, an initiative to combat a wave of shootings. Homicides in Miami are 30 percent higher this year than the same period in 2020, according to data from the medical examiner’s office.
The efforts include additional streetlights and surveillance cameras, prosecutors assigned to “hot spot” areas and a code enforcement crackdown on illegal party venues.
“This is something we have never seen before,” Alfredo Ramirez III, the director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, said of the recent surge in violence. “Now they are going to see something they’ve never seen before: They’re going to see the law enforcement community united, working as one.”
Business owners who are eager to see tourism return have been especially anxious by the persistent violence.
Pete Berghoff, whose family has owned the historic Berghoff restaurant in Chicago’s Loop since 1898, is planning to reopen its doors in July. But he is worried about the unruly gatherings of younger people downtown that have turned violent.
“I’m very concerned that as people return to work, there are going to be confrontations,” he said. “We’re excited to reopen. But we need to make sure that everybody downtown feels safe.”
Homicide rates in large cities were up more than 30 percent on average last year, and up another 24 percent for the beginning of this year, according to criminologists.
Gil Monrose, a pastor at Mt. Zion Church of God 7th Day in Brooklyn, said that before the virus struck New York, residents were increasingly engaged with his anti-violence organization. Members were beginning to see progress in gun crime tallies, he said.
Then came the pandemic.
“It’s like you start over again, but with all of the complexities of this moment,” he said. “To the point where I don’t know how we got to where we are now.”
The issue of gun violence catapulted to the front of the hotly contested New York mayor’s race after a rare shooting in Times Square in May that injured three bystanders, including a 4-year-old girl. At a recent debate, several candidates unveiled broad proposals for removing guns from the city’s streets, while some more moderate challengers doubled down on a more robust police response, including restarting plainclothes anti-crime units.
In Milwaukee, where homicides hit a record high in 2020, residents of neighborhoods burdened by gunfire are ready to leave. Asia Flanagan, 40, said that after a year of what has felt like never-ending tragedy on Milwaukee’s North Side, she intended to move out with her infant son.
“By October we’ll be out of here,” she said, sitting outside her apartment earlier this month with her son Josiah, who wore a gray Captain America onesie and fiddled with the key fob to the family minivan. “That’s my birthday present to myself. I have a son to raise.”
Arnitta Holliman directs Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention, a unit within the public health department that was hailed for its role in the steep decline in homicides from 2016 to 2019. She attributed the current upswing in part because of growing access to weapons — Wisconsin shattered its previous record for gun sales last year — and the destabilizing effect of the pandemic.
“There are a myriad of issues that play into why we see higher levels of violence — poverty, food insecurity and other related issues,” she said, “and, of course, Covid.”
A violence prevention and intervention strategy announced by Ms. Holliman’s department includes an effort to connect young people with more than 80 programs and activities to keep them out of trouble.
Bouchards, a boutique fashion retailer, fully opened its two Milwaukee locations about a month ago, but the owner, Rami Murrar, said the spike in violence seemed to be keeping some people away.
“Definitely it’s affecting my business, in a negative way,” Mr. Murrar, 40, said. “In the inner city in general we see more people walking around with guns, whether it’s concealed carry or whatnot. People are going to shop less because they’re scared to go out.”
Small and midsize cities have also seen an alarming spike in shootings.
Last month, the City Council in Jackson, Miss., gathered in a church for a special meeting over the gun violence crisis in a city of roughly 160,000 people. There were 130 homicides last year, according to law enforcement statistics, far surpassing the previous record of 92 killings in 1995.
With homicides up by about 70 percent in the first three months of this year, the outrage and frustration continues to grow.
“If we don’t save these children,” Kenneth I. Stokes, a city councilman, said during the meeting, “we’re going to keep having these meetings, keep going to the funerals — and wondering why.”
Lubbock, Texas, population 259,000, saw homicides double from 2019 to 2020 — so far this year, 11 homicides have been recorded, according to police data. Some residents said that they felt an increased police presence to combat crime and that it brought them comfort.
In the northern part of the city last week, Margarita Garza, 54, sat in her front yard as her grandchildren played around her.
She has been raising them while her son is incarcerated for drug-related crimes, she said, adding that it is the drug trade in Lubbock that has led to more violence and gang activity in the area. “Everybody wants their drug money,” she said. “Some people get fronted some and they don’t pay, so they either get shot or killed.”
In Atlanta, the rise in crime has become a driving issue in the mayoral election, causing some residents and businesses to lose confidence in the city’s leadership.
Throughout the first 18 weeks of the year, police statistics show that homicides rose 57 percent, rapes 55 percent, aggravated assaults 36 percent and auto thefts 31 percent compared with the same period last year.
“I see signs people are getting a little weary,” said Felicia A. Moore, who is the president of the City Council and running for mayor. “We do have people who have left the city, who are threatening to leave the city.”
In the Buckhead section of Atlanta, which has for generations been a hub of wealth in the city, the rise in crime in homicides and robberies has stoked a backlash severe enough to push some residents to want to secede and form a city of their own.
“We’re under siege with all of this,” said Bill White, the chairman and chief executive of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, the group that has been driving the secession effort. “People tell me, ‘It feels like a war zone.’ They don’t feel safe going to pump gas in the middle of the day.”
In the first 18 weeks of the year, police statistics show homicides in the city of Atlanta up 57 percent, rapes up 55 percent, aggravated assaults up 36 percent and auto thefts up 31 percent compared with the same period last year.
Still, even as frustration has mounted, there was also a sense that residents did not want to return to the aggressive measures that officials had resorted to in the past, which had a long tail of consequences and a disproportionate impact on African Americans.
Tough-on-crime stances, once widely popular with voters, have had diminished support as the country has confronted disparities in the criminal justice system. Even without the consequences, criminal justice experts have questioned their effectiveness.
“I don’t think it’s going to be the same old story this time,” said Tom Clark, a political science professor and a director of the Politics of Policing Lab at Emory University. “Americans today understand being tough on crimes does more than just catch some more criminals.
“We understand it leads to the deaths of innocent civilians, it leads to disproportionate policing of some communities over others, we understand it leads to long-term negative consequences for the relationship between police and community.”
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