Crime Floods American Cities, Where Allowed

News Analysis

America is experiencing a major increase in crime. Upon a murder explosion that started in 2020, other forms of criminality have metastasized too over the past year or so, particularly robberies, carjacking, burglaries, and theft. Police agencies across the country report perpetrators becoming more brazen and systematic.

The wildfire of villainy is fueled by an atmosphere of lawlessness and diminished accountability, but it doesn’t spread indiscriminately—many areas have successfully resisted it.

After the crack epidemic abated in the early 1990s, America enjoyed decades of generally declining crime. Even after murder spiked in 2015–16 and then again in 2020, other forms of malefaction stayed on a downward trend, particularly crime targeting property like theft and robbery.

That is no longer the case.

Of the 150 law enforcement agencies that submitted data to the FBI for the first half of 2022, about 60 percent reported increases in property crimes. Nearly one-third reported upswings in murder and robbery greater than 20 percent and almost a quarter reported increases in burglary and theft exceeding 20 percent, compared to the same period a year earlier.

Retailers reported a 26 percent increase in organized theft in 2021, according to the latest survey by the National Retail Federation, an industry group (pdf). More than 70 percent said the risk of theft, organized retail crime, and violence toward personnel increased last year. More than 80 percent of the respondents said organized theft has gotten more aggressive and violent.

Among major cities, about one in three saw robbery shoot up by more than 20 percent in the first half of this year. One in five experienced murders going up by more than 20 percent, compared to the first half of 2021, according to a survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which draws data from 70 large police jurisdictions across the country (pdf).

A number of cities, however, have not only resisted the crime wave, but actually achieved substantial reductions. In Columbus, Ohio, both murder and robbery collapsed by nearly 40 percent, according to the survey. Robbery dropped by 30 percent in Oklahoma City. Indianapolis, Houston, Boston, and Detroit have seen improvements too.

The key to these dramatic differences lies in the understanding of justice by law enforcement officials in these areas, several experts told The Epoch Times.

De-Incarceration

Large swaths of America, particularly in urban centers, have been influenced by an ideology that’s nihilistic toward the country’s existing criminal justice institutions, according to several experts.

The influence often manifests through reforms and policies that make it more difficult or even impossible to put many criminals behind bars.

The most prominent factor has been the election of district attorneys espousing a de-incarceration agenda who then refuse to prosecute whole swaths of crimes.

Another factor has been the passing of state and local criminal justice reforms that lower penalties for crimes so much that in many cases the punishment becomes ineffectual as a deterrent.

Yet another factor is reforms that make police work more difficult. Some jurisdictions, for example, have banned police from pursuing a criminal escaping in a vehicle, except in extreme circumstances. In some areas, police have been severely restricted in use of force measures to pacify a resisting suspect. Such measures, in turn, have contributed to an increase in retirements and resignations of officers in these areas.

“We have disorder on the streets with addicts and mentally ill people basically running rampant in major cities and a lot of them dying. And then we have an increase in organized and disorganized street violence,” said Sean Kennedy, a criminal justice expert at the Maryland Public Policy Institute, a liberty-oriented think tank.

“And we see police forces overwhelmed where they’re not even treading water, they’re just popping their head out every once in a while, as they drown.”

The de-incarceration agenda also got a boost during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was cited as a justification to release thousands of prison inmates as well as temporarily shut down the court system. Even after the court system restarted, it often only held remote hearings while facing a backlog of cases.

In 2020, 40 percent fewer people were sent to prison than the year before. In California, 66 percent fewer were sentenced. In New York, 60 percent fewer. The national prison population dropped by more than 200,000, according to Department of Justice statistics (pdf).

Defenders of the reforms and policies have argued that the new regime only shows leniency toward lesser offenses and still metes out punishment for serious crimes.

But because the leniency is made a matter of policy, rather than case-by-case consideration, it creates gaps in enforcement, some experts pointed out.

“Think about criminal justice as an equation: Police times prosecutors times judges. And that gives you a criminal justice result,” explained Thomas Hogan, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, and former federal prosecutor.

“If you go back to your high school math, if any of those police, prosecutors, or judges go to zero then the sum of the equation is zero.”

It doesn’t take long for criminals to identify and exploit such gaps.

“Criminals are sensitive to law enforcement policies,” commonly know the law, think things through, and “people should not be surprised by that,” Hogan told The Epoch Times.

“They figure out relatively quickly that if a carjacking with a gun is going to get you 10 years in prison and carjacking with a knife is only going to get you six months in prison, well, yea, they’re going to use a knife instead of a gun.”

A carjacking is a fitting example. An increasingly rare offense just a few years ago, it has been recently on the rise as reported by a number of large police departments.

It’s particularly troubling, according to Hogan.

“Carjackings are a classic canary in a coal mine for violent crime,” he said. “When carjacking starts to go up that means that prosecutors and law enforcement have lost control of the city.”

Car theft has plummeted since the 1990s in major part due to security improvements that make it difficult to hotwire a vehicle. There are sophisticated ways to overcome the obstacle, such as by cloning the car keys, but “generally the only way to get your hands on a car is to take it from the owner while it’s running,” he said.

That’s one of the reasons why carjacking is on the rise, but not the only one.

“The reason that people are engaging in carjackings these days are not to steal cars per se. In other words, these are not generally organized car theft gangs, who are then reselling the cars. These are carjackings that are occurring to commit other crimes. People are engaging in carjackings because they’re going to commit another crime using that car,” he said.

“So they may be going to do a drive-by shooting they may be going to do a robbery. But knowing how much video surveillance is out there, they know they need to use somebody else’s car to throw off the investigation.”

Carjacking used to yield harsh punishment because they can be slapped with federal charges on the premise that the vehicle has moved in interstate commerce.

“The person would get a really substantial sentence,” Hogan said.

That practice has subsided however.

“You’re not seeing that on the federal side anymore and the local prosecutors are being overwhelmed by the cases and either can’t solve them or when they do solve them, they’re not giving them stiff enough sentences,” he said.

Mass Theft

Organized retail theft has also been associated with the progressive reforms.

Over 70 percent of the retailer survey respondents opined that policies such as increasing the felony threshold for theft, eliminating cash bail, and reducing penalties for repeat offenders have been associated with greater loss from organized retail crime.

Hogan gave two case studies to underscore the point.

“San Diego and Detroit, two very different places, right? One is relatively wealthy and sunny. And its demographic population probably skews more Hispanic on the minority side. Detroit very poor, very cold, the minority population skews more towards the black population. But both of them have prosecutors, police chiefs, and mayors who are not going to be lenient with organized retail theft. And as a result, those cities are not seeing the same level of organized retail theft because they’re arresting people. Two totally different cities,” he stressed.

“On the other hand, you’ve got two cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia, again, totally different cities, geographically, demographically. But you’re seeing huge increases in property crimes and retail theft crimes, because there in both cities you have a prosecutor, a police chief, and a mayor who are relatively lenient on this sort of stuff. We’re allowing retail theft to go largely unpunished. And as a result, you are getting large organized retail theft rings that are working those cities.”

It’s relatively common for prosecutors to go easy on shoplifters. The first, second, and maybe even the third time, the offender may get off with a ticket and no charge, Hogan said. But if the criminal keeps at it, they’ll get slapped with a misdemeanor and may end up in jail.

Now, however, some localities have virtually abandoned petty theft prosecutions.

“That means you can do it over and over again, right? And so that clearly sends a signal,” he said.

Such a gap in enforcement then can be exploited systematically.

“When individual criminals realized, ‘okay, I could walk into a store and basically fill up a shopping cart full of stuff and walk out and nobody will stop me.’ It didn’t take long for organized criminals to realize that they could turn this into a profitable enterprise,” Hogan said.

“When they figured this out, all they did was scale it. Instead of one person going in and doing it and realizing the profit for themselves. They organize this into gangs, into groups, and turn it into a full-scale commercial operation. That full-scale commercial operation is now costing the American consumers billions of dollars in increased prices for their goods as the retail establishments who are suffering these losses, pass on those costs to the honest consumers.”

In New York City, petty theft increased nearly 43 percent this year, compared to the same period in 2021. In San Francisco, the problem has become so pervasive police statistics don’t even capture it because victims, it appears, largely don’t report it anymore.

Based on law enforcement investigations in several states, the theft is driven by organized groups that buy stolen merchandise for $1 or $2 a piece from so-called “boosters,” who are usually drug addicts, homeless, and petty criminals who walk into a store, grab whatever they can, sometimes filling up whole trash bags with items from baby formula to razor blades, and simply walk out. Some stores have hired security guards, but if the thieves come in a group, it’s almost impossible for the guard to stop them all. Boosters sell the loot to fences who then transfer it to warehouses, sometimes run as semi-professional distribution centers. The merchandise is then sold online through platforms like eBay and Facebook Marketplace.

There has been some success busting the operations at the distribution side.

In 2020, five people were charged in California in the largest retail theft ring bust the state had ever seen. The group was reselling stolen merchandise internationally, including moving the goods abroad and laundering the proceeds back into the United States, according to the authorities. Some $8 million worth of merchandise was recovered and nearly $2 million seized in cash and from bank accounts, local media reported. The suspects, however, ultimately ended up with sentences ranging from 3 years in prison to probation and a month in jail.

In February, a Chicago couple was arrested for stealing merchandise from delivery trucks at a distribution center warehouse. Goods worth over $2 million were recovered.

In March, authorities arrested five people in Los Angeles for running a retail theft ring that fleeced retailers for merchandise worth over $500,000, selling it online internationally (pdf).

In May, NYPD busted 41 people accused of involvement in a New York City retail theft ring. Goods worth over $3.8 million were recovered.

The sums involved, however, hardly add up to anything compared to the tens of billions retailers lose to theft every year, based on industry survey estimates.

Brazen

Many law enforcement agencies have reported a change in attitude on the part of criminals: They have become more impudent and reckless.

“What we’re seeing are offenders who are completely emboldened. They’re using guns to shoot people, commit carjackings, and they’re doing it at all hours of the day and really all over the city,” U.S. Attorney John Lausch, who’s responsible for the Northern District of Illinois including Chicago, told WLS-TV last year.

This year, shootings are down almost 20 percent in the city—still 33 percent above 2019 levels. On the other hand, robberies are up 26 percent, theft 65 percent, and car theft 66 percent (pdf).

In New York City, shootings are down some 13 percent this year—but still more than 70 percent above the 2019 level. But middle-of-the-day shootings, occurring between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., have actually increased almost 10 percent this year from the same period in 2021.

A loosely organized car theft group in Milwaukee, calling themselves the “Kia boys” for their penchant for stealing cars of that brand, have went so far as to allow themselves to be featured in a Youtube documentary. Clips featured in the video show presumed juvenile car thieves driving recklessly, sometimes crashing. One of the self-proclaimed members said some Kia boys have stolen as many as 300 cars. There are no real consequences for them—a misdemeanor charge and 3 weeks in jail for stealing a car, he said.

Last year, over 10,000 cars were stolen in the city, up from less than 3,500 in 2019. This year, so far, over 6,300 were stolen.

The car theft avalanche was preceded by a sharp increase in violence.

In 2020, Milwaukee saw 189 murders, breaking its homicide rate record set in 1991. A year later, that record was broken again with 193 murders.

This year is shaping up to be worse yet—170 have already been murdered, 23 percent up from the same period in 2021.

Violent crime can serve as a precursor for other types of crime because it drains police resources, according to Kennedy.

“Because the other crime, violent crime is spiking, it opens a window for petty crime. It allows for police to look the other way or not focus on [it] because they have a bigger fish to fry,” he said.

Living in Washington, D.C., he’s noticed that police now take much longer to respond to non-emergency calls.

“We’re going back to the bad old days,” he noted.

No Complacency

While crime in general tends to be concentrated in poor, urban neighborhoods, there seems to be little room for complacency even for Americans living in communities that have remained relatively crime-free.

While smaller towns are still incomparably safer than large cities, that comfort considerably diminished in 2020.

In 2019, towns with population under 50,000 had a murder rate of less than 2.9 per 100,000. That same rate was more than 3.7 in 2020, according to data reported to the FBI. That’s almost as high as that of 2019 New York City, which was 3.8.

“Crime is contagious,” Hogan warned, particularly because of “spillover effects.”

“Those organized crime rings that operate in the cities with impunity eventually will spread out into smaller jurisdictions around the cities,” he said.

Everett, a suburban city of 110,000 north of Seattle, saw violent crime surge by almost 50 percent, including a 133 percent increase in murder and an 83 percent jump in robberies in the first half of 2022, compared to the first half of 2021. Tacoma, a city of 220,000 south of Seattle, experienced a violent crime increase of 75 percent, including a doubling of murders and robberies.

“If you have a vigorous enough response, then yes, you can dampen the effects of crime increasing that are leaking in from all over the place and your marginal increases will be smaller than other places, but you’re still going to see increases,” Hogan said.

A common mantra among public officials in recent years has been that it’s not possible to “arrest your way” out of the problem and that what needs to be addressed are broad-scale difficulties that help crime fester, such as addiction, poverty, and homelessness.

Hogan and others, meanwhile, argue that none of the softer, long-term solutions will be effective unless there’s accountability for criminals also. The most immediate solution they proscribe is returning to a more traditional, and tougher, law enforcement.

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Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.

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