As battle against virus ends, mayors confront a new villain: Criminals

By Julie Bosman, Frances Robles and Rick Rojas

Mayors of American cities have yearned for the moment they could usher in a return to normalcy, casting away coronavirus restrictions on bars, restaurants, parties and public gatherings.

Yet now, even with reopenings underway across the United States as the pandemic recedes, city leaders must contend with another crisis: a crime wave with no signs of ending.

They are cheerleading the return of office workers to downtowns and encouraging tourists to visit, eager to rejuvenate the economy and build public confidence. But they are also frantically trying to quell a surge of homicides, assaults and carjackings that began during the pandemic and has cast a chill over the recovery.

In Austin, Texas, for example, 14 people were injured early Saturday morning in a mass shooting as revelers jammed a popular downtown nightlife district.

Some city officials have touted progressive strategies focused on community policing in neighborhoods where trust between police officers and residents has frayed. Others have deployed more traditional tactics like increasing surveillance cameras in troubled areas and enforcing curfews in city parks to clear out crowds, as police did in Washington Square Park in New York City last week.

In Chicago, which fully reopened Friday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot made clear that her focus was on reducing violence over the summer, and that her administration would focus resources on 15 high-crime pockets of the city as part of that effort.

“We owe it to all of our residents, in every neighborhood, to bring peace and vibrancy back,” Lightfoot said.

Superintendent David Brown, the head of the Chicago Police Department, announced this month what he called a “transformative moment” for the department, a plan to add more officers in the Civil Rights Unit, which is specially trained to work with marginalized residents, including those who are homeless. The plan would also expand youth initiatives in arts and sports.

Other cities, like Miami, are nearly free of pandemic restrictions and booming with tourists. This month, the top prosecutor in Miami-Dade County and local police leaders turned to the issue of public safety, announcing Operation Summer Heat, an initiative to combat a wave of shootings. Homicides in Miami are 30% higher this year than in the same period in 2020, according to data from the medical examiner’s office.

The efforts include additional streetlights and surveillance cameras, prosecutors assigned to “hot spot” areas and a code enforcement crackdown on illegal party venues.

“This is something we have never seen before,” Alfredo Ramirez III, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, said of the recent surge in violence. “Now they are going to see something they’ve never seen before: They’re going to see the law enforcement community united, working as one.”

Business owners who are eager to see tourism return have been especially anxious about the persistent violence.

Pete Berghoff, whose family has owned the historic Berghoff restaurant in Chicago’s Loop since 1898, is planning to reopen its doors in July. But he is worried about the unruly gatherings of younger people downtown that have turned violent.

“I’m very concerned that as people return to work, there are going to be confrontations,” he said. “We’re excited to reopen. But we need to make sure that everybody downtown feels safe.”

Homicide rates in large cities were up more than 30% on average last year, and up another 24% for the beginning of this year, according to criminologists.

In Milwaukee, where homicides hit a record high in 2020, residents of neighborhoods burdened by gunfire are ready to leave. Asia Flanagan, 40, said that after a year of what has felt like never-ending tragedy on Milwaukee’s North Side, she intended to move out with her infant son.

“By October we’ll be out of here,” she said, sitting outside her apartment this month with her son Josiah, who wore a gray Captain America onesie and fiddled with the key fob to the family minivan. “That’s my birthday present to myself. I have a son to raise.”

Arnitta Holliman directs Milwaukee’s Office of Violence Prevention, a unit within the public health department that was hailed for its role in the steep decline in homicides from 2016-19. She attributed the current upswing in part to growing access to weapons — Wisconsin shattered its previous record for gun sales last year — and the destabilizing effect of the pandemic.

“There are a myriad of issues that play into why we see higher levels of violence — poverty, food insecurity and other related issues,” she said, “and, of course, COVID.”

A violence prevention and intervention strategy announced by Holliman’s department includes an effort to connect young people with more than 80 programs and activities to keep them out of trouble.

Bouchards, a boutique fashion retailer, fully opened its two Milwaukee locations about a month ago, but the owner, Rami Murrar, said the spike in violence seemed to be keeping some people away.

“Definitely it’s affecting my business, in a negative way,” Murrar, 40, said. “In the inner city in general we see more people walking around with guns, whether it’s concealed carry or whatnot. People are going to shop less because they’re scared to go out.”

Small and midsize cities have also seen an alarming spike in shootings.

Last month, the City Council in Jackson, Mississippi, gathered in a church for a special meeting over the gun violence crisis in a city of roughly 160,000 people. There were 130 homicides last year, according to law enforcement statistics, far surpassing the previous record of 92 killings in 1995.

With homicides up by about 70% in the first three months of this year, the outrage and frustration continue to grow.

“If we don’t save these children,” Kenneth I. Stokes, a city councilman, said during the meeting, “we’re going to keep having these meetings, keep going to the funerals — and wondering why.”

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