Tue, 03 Aug 2021

WASHINGTON - As summer arrives, gun violence in major U.S. cities shows no signs of letting up, prompting the administration of President Joe Biden into action and complicating efforts to pursue criminal justice reform.

Biden is set to announce a series of executive orders designed to reduce violent crimes in a speech Wednesday afternoon and is expected to renew his call for Congress to adopt gun control legislation.

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In New York City, there have been 194 murders so far this year, up from 171 during the same period last year, according to the latest police data. In Los Angeles, the second largest U.S. city, the number stands at 148 murders, up from 121 last year, while in Chicago, the nation's third largest city, homicides have increased to 307 this year from 296 during the same period last year.

The spike in homicides and shootings started last summer after cities began easing COVID-19 related restrictions. According to a recent survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a professional organization with police executives from the U.S. and Canada, there were 8,077 murders in 67 major cities in 2020, up 33% from 6,087 in 2019.

With COVID restrictions continuing to ease as more Americans are inoculated with new vaccines, the outlook for violence in 2021 remains just as bleak.

"I expect 2021 will be about as bad as 2020," said John Roman, a criminologist at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.

What's driving violence

Precisely what is driving the violence remains an open question. While criminologists point to the pandemic and protests over George Floyd's death, many law enforcement officials blame recent reforms such as a 2019 New York law that eliminated cash bail for low-level offenders.

Regardless, with Republicans blaming the increase in violent crime on progressive criminal justice policies, the Biden administration has responded with a slate of initiatives aimed at curbing the violence.

Last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a new crime fighting strategy that includes increased community engagement and funds for violence interruption and post-conviction reentry programs.

As part of the strategy, the Department of Justice announced it will launch five strike forces to target illegal guns in major firearms trafficking corridors.

"So, yes, we believe that a central driver of violence is gun violence and is the use of guns," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday. "We're seeing that statistically in a lot of areas. But (Biden) also believes that we need to ensure that state and local governments keep cops on the beat, that we're supporting community policing, and that's a key part of it as well."

New measures

Other measures will be announced on Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said at a townhall organized by the Police Executive Research Forum. Biden will address a bipartisan group of mayors, community activists and law enforcement officials.

As a U.S. senator in the 1990s, Biden helped craft a controversial crime bill that critics blame for the mass incarceration of African Americans in recent decades. But during the 2020 presidential campaign, he distanced himself from the 1994 Crime Bill and embraced much of the progressives' criminal reform agenda -- even as he stopped short of supporting calls to "defund" the police.

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Now, Republicans are blaming the surge in homicides and shootings on the progressives' purported anti-police rhetoric as they press for a return to tough-on-crime policies.

"In some ways, the pandemic likely contributed [to the uptick]. But it is impossible to ignore that these terrible trends are coming precisely as so-called 'progressives' have decided it's time to denounce and defund local law enforcement," Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell said in a floor speech last month.

Roman noted that historically periods of rising violence have spurred "knee-jerk" calls for more police and punitive measures. But policy makers have learned from the experience of recent decades that they can't arrest their way out of the problem, he said.

"And I think we know much, much more about what our alternatives are, and maybe those alternatives are more effective than policing," Roman said.

Psaki said the president is a firm believer in the need for reforms of police systems across the county, "but there are also steps he can take as president of the United States to help address and hopefully reduce that crime."

"A big part of that, in his view, is putting in place gun safety measures," she added, as well as "using the bully pulpit but also using levers at his disposal as president."

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