What's to blame for the murder spike? Nikole Hannah-Jones has thoughts

Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File

Tuesday the Washington Post published a column by Henry Olsen titled, “What’s to blame for the murder spike? Certainly anti-police fervor didn’t help.” Here’s a bit of what he wrote.

Murders in the United States rose by 30 percent in 2020, the largest one-year increase on record. There are likely many factors that contributed to the spike, but there’s one thing that clearly did not help: the blanket anti-police mantra adopted by many urban and national leaders after the killing of George Floyd.

That mantra, typified by high-profile calls to “defund the police,” is in response to real problems in law enforcement, but it has created a crisis in police staffing. Police are retiring or quitting in droves, often because they do not want to take the daily abuse unleashed by the mobs unfairly blaming average cops for the racial problems that the Floyd case revealed. The surge in departures is particularly acute in cities where police were not supported by mayors or city councils. Seattle, for example, saw resignations nearly quadruple and retirements double from 2019 to 2020, leaving the force short by more than 100 officers. The remaining personnel were stretched thin, causing response times to calls for help to soar.

This problem with police stretched thin wasn’t limited to Seattle. Austin, which actually did defund police by over $100 million, just announced that police will not respond to any non-emergency calls (such as you just discovered someone broke into your car or robbed your house). They simply don’t have the manpower to do it. Portland also lost a lot of officers and has struggled to replace them.

The idea that the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed have some connection to the spike in shootings and murder isn’t a fringe theory at this point. They NY Times reported on the latest FBI statistics less than two weeks ago, listing it as one of three factors.

The reasons for the rise may never be fully sorted out, but analysts have pointed to many possible contributing factors, including various pandemic stresses; increased distrust between the police and the public after the murder of George Floyd, including a pullback by the police in response to criticism; and increased firearm carrying.

I argued here that connection to the protests is the only one of the three that makes sense of the timing of the spike, which began at the end of May and went up from there. The research on the contribution of increased gun sales is mixed at best. But of course not everyone likes the idea that BLM’s pushing of “defund the police” may have had serious, negative consequences. So when Christina Sommers tweeted out the Post column above, Nikole Hannah-Jones tried to smack it down.

I hardly know where to begin with this so I’ll just take these arguments in order. First, she says she’s tired of people trying to score political points over dead bodies. Where were you all last year when it seemed every progressive on Twitter was very, very certain President Trump was responsible for every death from COVID? Talk about vapid. Even if you hate Trump, the fact remains that public health is primarily a state issue and lockdowns were ordered (or not) by counties and Governors not by Trump. This isn’t to say that Trump didn’t make mistakes, only that blaming one person for everything was always more partisan than it was rational. Not surprisingly, you don’t hear these same people arguing that Biden is responsible for all the deaths since January 20.

Moving on. What does it say about law enforcement that they were “willing to let people die” is a remarkable misstatement of the situation. Hannah-Jones came back to this idea in another tweet.

Absolutely none of this makes sense. If police resign or retire under pressure from BLM activists, they aren’t being “paid” by anyone at that point. They also aren’t failing to do jobs they no longer hold. Hannah-Jones argument is equivalent to a manager saying, “Why hasn’t that guy who quit last month been keeping up with his work?”

Granted, not all of the spike may be the result of cops who left (or moved to jobs in less hostile places). The most generous reading of her tweets is that she’s talking about the so-called Ferguson Effect, i.e. officers who are still on the job but who have pulled back because of the pressure from BLM activists. Even if that’s who she’s talking about, attributing their response to “vengeance” is not very generous on her part.

Police know that activists are against them. They know because the activists tell them. They also know that any mistake by any officer will be filmed and held up as an example that the whole system is corrupt and could result in serious consequences for them because activists demand it. So it’s not surprising that they might respond by taking fewer risks and doing their job in a more hands-off (literally) approach.

More to the point, the officers and the brass know that arguing with BLM about anything is a good way to become a target of harassment and protests. So, not surprisingly, most cops didn’t argue. They basically took a step back to avoid having the general anti-police attitude become focused on them as individuals. That’s not “vengeance” it’s stepping out of the line of fire. Police officers, unlike Hannah-Jones herself, aren’t up for fame, fabulous prizes and financial windfalls if they do their job well. Last summer it seemed all they were up for was criticism.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the mechanism of the Ferguson Effect has more than one side. It’s not simply that police pull back, though that may have happened. It’s also that the community has less trust in police. Maybe the reason shootings are up is that people around the country decided the police were the enemy and they were going to solve certain problems themselves, i.e. street justice. If so, that would probably look a lot like the spikes in shootings and crime we see around the country. In other words, even if you accept the idea of the Ferguson Effect, that doesn’t mean police are to blame.

Getting back to this tweet…

The wording here is a bit tricky. It’s not necessarily that protests are “leading to the spike,” which implies a causal mechanism. It might be that there is causation in some cases, i.e. people are angry and set things on fire and demand police step back and in response police step back. But it also might be that both the spike in crime and the protests stem from the same conditions. For instance, people are angry at the police and decide to take policing their neighborhoods into their own hands. That’s arguably what we saw in isolated parts of Seattle, in Atlanta and in Minneapolis. It’s worth noting that, in every case, the outcome of these police-free autonomous zones was people being shot and killed.

But however you parse this, it’s hard to ignore the timing. Here’s a response to Hannah-Jones pointing that out.

She argued with that of course. She’s avoiding the obvious connection because she sees this as an attack on “the 1619 riots” which she enthusiastically supported.

It’s not a one year spike. The spike has continued this year. Crime is still up relative to 2019. Ultimately, she’s rejecting the idea that her personally endorsed approach might have had some negative outcomes. It must be part of a plot to silence protesters.

At this point, what can you say? I don’t want to silence protesters but I do want to be able to point to the evidence that anti-police fervor seemed to coincide with bad consequences, i.e. the highest annual spike in the murder rate in recent history.

Hannah-Jones will keep arguing that the jury is still out. Frankly that’s what many progressives were doing last year and earlier this year before the FBI numbers arrived, i.e. denying the spike in crime was real or that it was significant (crime was higher in the early 90s, etc.). I don’t think they’ll ever accept that there is a connection because it’s extremely inconvenient for them to concede fostering anti-police sentiment might lead to bad things. They will continue to pretend that it’s possible to hold nightly riots denouncing police and life will carry on because the people doing those jobs won’t react at all. It’s a vapid argument which is completely at odds with human nature, but it’s all they’ve got.