June 19, 2021

A preview of Tuesday’s Virtual Town Hall Meeting


Dear PERF members, 

It’s 2005.  I get a call from R.C. White, chief of police in Louisville.

“Chuck, have you noticed what’s going on with murders and robberies and assaults?” 

“No, R.C., what’s going on?” I ask.

“Make some calls,” R.C. says.

So I start calling chiefs from all over the country, and they all say what R.C. told me.  Violent crime – which had been declining quite steadily since the early 1990s – suddenly was increasing in their cities.

But no one was talking about it, because it seemed hard to believe after all those years of improvements.  Murders had totaled 24,703 in 1991, but gradually dropped to 16,148 in 2004 – a 35% reduction! Could it actually be that after 13 years, the era of good news about crime was over?

So we did what PERF does better than anyone, which is to survey our members quickly and ask them what’s going on.  And our survey results showed in real time that the nation was facing what we would come to call a “Gathering Storm” of violence.

The national FBI crime statistics wouldn’t be released until 6 to 12 months later, but they eventually confirmed what we had found. Murders, robberies, and aggravated assaults all increased.

Now fast forward to 2020 and 2021, and once again, homicides and shootings are accelerating, a lot. It reminds me of when I worked in Minneapolis in the 1990s and the New York Times called it “Murderopolis.”

The violence started last year during the pandemic. And now, just as we are beginning to see daylight with COVID, the violence is unfolding in big ways. From Savannah to Louisville to Asheville to Los Angeles to NYC and Portland, two numbers are off the charts: murder and shootings.

Violent crime will be Topic A at PERF’s Virtual Town Hall Meeting next Tuesday, from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. Eastern time.

At our Town Hall Meeting, we’ll be speaking with four police executives about this issue:

  • NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea;
  • Baton Rouge, LA Chief Murphy Paul;
  • Portland, OR Chief Chuck Lovell; and
  • Louisville Metro Chief Erika Shields.

All four of these cities have seen startling increases in homicides. I’m not talking about a 4 or 5% increase. We are seeing 40%, 60%, even 90% increases or more.  The Major Cities Chiefs Association found that homicides rose by more than 32% in 66 major cities from 2019 to 2020. Aggravated assaults were also up 15%. 

There are a lot of theories about what may be causing the spike in violence, but little solid evidence at this point. The COVID pandemic disrupted almost every aspect of life last year, so it seems reasonable to think it might have affected crime. COVID caused the near-shutdown of courts in many cities, which certainly didn’t help, and COVID-related releases of jail inmates may have had a role. Police departments in many cities had staffing shortages due to COVID budget cuts. Many persons addicted to drugs were cut off from their support networks and treatment programs because of COVID. And during the pandemic, the opioid crisis intensified, with the concomitant gang- and drug-related activities.

Another elephant in the room is the thousands of demonstrations last summer, which shifted police resources away from regular patrol and proactive crime-fighting assignments. Did anti-police sentiment cause some officers to pull back on engaging with people on the street? And have some members of the community become so distrustful of the police that they’re unwilling to share information or assist in investigations?

And then there is a question that keeps nagging at me: Did the effects of the pandemic have some as-yet unexplained impact on how people relate to one another? Did people become less patient, more agitated, from the stress of being shut in? Or when they finally could resume normal activity, has the pent-up COVID stress made people more prone to violence?

One thing that’s perplexing is that we have yet to find a unifying factor throughout all these cities.

Another shocking development is that gun sales have simply skyrocketed. The FBI reported conducting nearly 40 million background checks for gun purchases in 2020, compared to 28 million in 2019.  And based on the first 5 months of 2021, background checks are on a path to total 46 million this year.

I want to ask our 4 police chiefs at the Town Hall about what they’re seeing now, and what they’re doing to get the violence under control.

I want to break new ground and really drill down, to hear what they believe is driving crime. Is the increase in violent crime driven by any common factors, or is it more a function of local issues in each city? Do they believe that this is just a brief interruption of the 25-year decline in crime, or are we at the first stages of a new wave? And what do they think will work?

What else do we have on tap for the Town Hall Meeting? We’ll be talking with the news media.

The George Floyd tragedy has been a defining moment on many levels.  The news media have been relentless in focusing on this issue, understandably so. As I watch police chiefs under the glare of TV cameras, some manage to work through the crisis, but it isn’t easy.

For the Town Hall Meeting, we’ll have three veteran criminal justice reporters:

  • Tom Jackman from the Washington Post,
  • Tami Abdollah from USA Today, and
  • Pierre Thomas from ABC News.

I’ve worked with all three reporters and know them to be knowledgeable and insightful, so I expect this to be a productive exchange of ideas. I’ll ask them questions like:

  • What is the state of police-media relations today, compared to a year ago?
  • When a controversial use-of-force incident happens, what are police agencies doing well – and not so well – when it comes to working with the media?
  • Are there more effective ways for police departments to work with the press when they have important news to share?
  • What issues do reporters expect to be a focus of criminal justice journalism in the next year?
  • If there is one recommendation journalists would make to police chiefs on how to improve their relations with the news media, what would it be?

Finally, at the Town Hall Meeting we’ll talk to two top officials from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta will join us. I’ll be asking them about a wide range of topics, including what DOJ is doing to help address the spike in homicides and shootings.

And in light of the recent ransomware attacks on the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department and other critical infrastructure, I’ll ask how agencies can protect themselves from the threat of ransomware, and what they should do if they’re victimized.

In a major breakthrough, Deputy AG Monaco last week announced that DOJ recovered most of the ransom paid to the cyber-criminal gang that took the Colonial Pipeline offline. I’ll ask her how that success was accomplished.

We’ll also discuss DOJ’s priorities for local law enforcement agencies.

Finally, I’ll ask what DOJ expects of police agencies in terms of best practices in order to avoid “pattern or practice” findings.

So next Tuesday, June 22, I hope you can join us for our  virtual Town Hall Meeting at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time.

You can register for the meeting here, and on Tuesday you’ll access the meeting at this link.

I hope you will be able to listen in, and please invite anyone you would like.