Black America Rages as Murder Rate Soars

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CHICAGO - Inside the rectory of St Sabina Church on Chicago’s notorious South Side, Father Michael Pfleger made no attempt to sugar-coat what was happening on the streets he walks each day.

“Every day, children pass by a corner where some person got killed,” he said, his hand striking the table as a group of visiting community activists listened rapt. “The landmarks in our neighbourhoods are becoming police caution tape and memorials of teddy bears and balloons.”

In one weekend last month 42 people were shot in Chicago, among them a great- grandmother aged 81 who was hit four times in a drive-by shooting two blocks from Pfleger’s Roman Catholic church.

The priest, who has ministered there since 1975, recently asked a girl of 11 what she would like to be when she grew up: she responded that she wanted to be alive.

In Chicago shootings are up 25% and murders have risen by 17% on last year. The director Spike Lee is at present filming a movie called Chiraq — a portmanteau coined by rappers equating violence in Chicago to that in Iraq — on the South Side, where Barack Obama was a community activist in the 1980s.

Lee — who directed Do the Right Thing, which Obama took his future wife Michelle to see on their first date in 1989 — has visited Pfleger at his church.

The priest has no tolerance for those saying the Chiraq title stigmatises Chicago. “If you’re upset about the name Chiraq, change the reality,” he said.

Across America gun violence and murders are up this year in what many see as the first alarming sign that a 20-year trend of declining crime is being reversed.

The number of murders has surged by 103% in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and 59% in Houston, Texas.

In New York murders have risen by 20%. In St Louis shootings are up 39%, robberies 43% and killings 25%. Last year 57 police officers were murdered, up from 27 in 2013.

The sharp rise in crime comes against the backdrop of nationwide protests over a series of high-profile incidents in which police officers killed unarmed black suspects.

Michael Brown was shot dead in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner was choked to death in Staten Island, New York, and Tamir Rice, just 12, was shot dead in Cleveland, Ohio.

No officers have been charged in those cases but there were swift arrests and murder charges in connection with the deaths in April of Walter Scott, shot in the back in North Charleston, South Carolina, and Freddie Gray, who went into a coma after suffering a spinal injury in the back of a police van in Baltimore.

On Friday Mary O’Callaghan, a veteran Los Angeles police officer, was convicted of felony assault after being caught on a dashboard camera repeatedly kicking a handcuffed woman — who subsequently died.

Leading criminologists believe the upsurge in crime is due to what Sam Dotson, the St Louis police chief, has described as the “Ferguson effect” — a reluctance by police officers to make arrests or confront criminals for fear of being prosecuted if they make an error.

One posting on a St Louis forum used by police officers stated: “I’ll continue to do my job, but that is all. I refuse to be a punching bag for the public and the press. Why should I do anything other than the bare minimum?

“If I make even the slightest mistake my career, my savings . . . and even my freedom are in jeopardy.”

In the first two weeks of last month arrests by Baltimore police were down 57% on 2014. There were 42 murders, making it the deadliest month in the city since 1972, when its population was nearly twice the present size. During the protests over Gray’s death there was widespread looting and rioting.

George Kelling, of the Manhattan Institute think tank, was one of two academics who came up with the “broken windows” theory of policing based on the idea that if a neighbourhood fails to fix small things such as broken windows, law and order will quickly deteriorate.

This became the core of policing strategy in New York in the 1990s under the mayor, Rudy Giuliani, and later in Baltimore under Martin O’Malley, a Democrat mayor elected in 1999 who left office in 2007 (and is now a contender for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination).

Kelling fears that a “media feeding frenzy” over killings by police, the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras and protests against action by law enforcement officers have led to “a lot of police now who are wanting to avoid doing police work and who are hesitant to be very assertive or aggressive”.

Although murder and gun violence was up, so-called ordinary crime rates were steady, he noted. “Gun carrying and availability in America has been legitimised to an extent that I don’t think we’ve seen since the Wild West.

“This could be leading to people who wouldn’t have carried guns previously calculating they can settle disputes with guns because police departments are showing a reluctance to intervene.”

Back on Chicago’s South Side, Lorraine Banks, 53, a city bus driver, said she did not blame the police for backing away. “They can’t do their job no more. Every day they know it could be their last and now they’re being demonised just for doing that job.”

She laughed when told by The Sunday Times that the only police officer encountered within the few blocks around St Sabina had been dozing in his Land Cruiser, parked on a quiet side street. “If I was him, that’s what I’d be doing,” she said. “They’re clocking on and clocking off right now so they can go back home to their families.”

Pfleger, a radical activist and long a thorn in the side of his bishop and of Chicago’s establishment, dismisses the notion of a “Ferguson effect”, citing poverty, racism, high incarceration rates, unemployment and poor education as long-term factors fuelling crime.

“Someone from the police department told me yesterday the police were so frightened they were just going to sit back and let things happen,” he said. “But a good cop never has to be afraid. If they’re just going to put in their eight hours and do less then they should be fired.”

Whatever the reason for the rise in crime, he added, it was the poor blacks of the South Side and other inner-city areas across America who were the victims. “We talk about soldiers coming back from war and dealing with it,” he said. “But these are entire communities suffering from post-traumatic stress from a war they face every day.” 

Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.

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