In the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, a troubling surge in homicides

By John Eligon, Shaila Dewan and Nicholas Bogel-Burroghs

It started with an afternoon stop at a gas station. Two customers began exchanging angry stares near the pumps outside — and no one can explain exactly why.

That led to an argument, and it escalated quickly as one of them pulled a gun and they struggled over it, according to police.

“There’s too many shootings. Please don’t do this,” the wife of one of the men pleaded, stepping between them.

But by the time the fight was over at the station on Kansas City’s East Side late last month, the all-too-familiar crackle of gunfire pierced the humid air, leaving another person dead in what has been an exceedingly bloody summer.

The onset of warm weather nearly always brings with it a spike in violent crime, but with much of the country emerging from weeks of lockdown from the coronavirus, the increase this year has been much steeper than usual.

Across 20 major cities, the murder rate at the end of June was on average 37% higher than it was at the end of May, according to Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The increase over the same period a year ago was just 6%.

In few places has the bloodshed been more devastating than in Kansas City, where the city is on pace to shatter its record for homicides in a year. Much of it has involved incidents of random, angry violence like the conflict at the gas station — disputes between strangers that left someone dead, or killings that simply cannot be explained. They have claimed the lives of a pregnant woman pushing a stroller, a 4-year-old boy asleep in his grandmother’s home and a teenage girl sitting in a car.

They have also prompted a much-debated intervention from the federal government, an operation named after the 4-year-old Kansas City boy, LeGend Taliferro, that has sent federal law enforcement agents to at least six cities in an attempt to intervene.

“We’re surrounded by murder, and it’s almost like your number is up,” said Erica Mosby, whose niece, Diamon Eichelburger, 20, was the pregnant victim pushing the stroller in Kansas City. “It’s terrible.”

Nationally, crime remains at or near a generational low, and experts caution against drawing conclusions from just a few months.

But President Donald Trump has used the rising homicide numbers to paint Democratic-led cities as out of control and to blame protests against police brutality that broke out after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.

“Extreme politicians have joined this anti-police crusade and relentlessly vilified our law enforcement heroes,” Trump said during a White House news conference last month to announce Operation LeGend. He added that “the effort to shut down policing in their own communities has led to a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders.”

Criminologists dispute the president’s suggestion that the increase is tied to any pullback by police in response to criticism or defunding efforts, and fluctuations in the crime rate are notoriously hard to explain. In many cities, the murder rate was on the rise before the pandemic, and a steep decline in arrests coincided with the start of social distancing, as measured by mobile phone records, according to a database compiled by David Abrams, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania law school.

Some experts have pointed to the pandemic’s destabilization of community institutions, or theorized that people with a propensity for violence may have been less likely to heed stay-at-home orders. But in city after city, crime overall is down, including all types of major crime except murder, aggravated assault and in some places, car theft.

In Kansas City, homicides have been on a swift upward trajectory from the time a 41-year-old man named Earl Finch III was gunned down in a driveway in broad daylight on Jan. 5, the first killing of the year. Even the coronavirus lockdown did not slow the violence, though as in other cities it has escalated even further in the wake of reopenings.

After six new deaths over the weekend, 122 people have been killed this year, compared with 90 through the same time last year. The city is well on its way to surpassing its grim record of 153 killings in 1993. And by the end of July the city had matched the number of nonfatal shootings — about 490 — that it had all of last year.

Much of the violence in Kansas City has had little rhyme or reason, often stemming from petty arguments that boil over.

The short fuses may indicate restlessness and anger, criminologists and law enforcement officials said. Police have attributed about 30 of the homicides this year to arguments, some involving people with no serious criminal history. Economic hardship also appeared to be a factor in some of the killings. Only 15 were deemed drug-related. In almost 50 cases, police have not yet determined a motive.

Spontaneous, one-on-one beefs have replaced gang feuds as a driver of shootings, said Maj. Greg Volker of the Kansas City Police Department.

“If people could settle an argument without having to resort to shooting, violence would reduce,” he said.

Another atypical trend this year is that in several cases, the gunmen and victims were not otherwise involved in criminal activity, Volker said, pointing to the gas station shooting in July.

The man now charged with murder in the case is a meatpacking worker, Isaac Knighten, 40, who devotes much of his time to mentoring Black men and boys, including teaching conflict resolution through Alpha Male Nation, a mentoring organization his brother started. His wife said he had turned his life around after serving time on drug charges from more than a decade ago.

After Knighten had a brief, hostile exchange with the other man in the parking lot, the man, Jayvon McCray, 28, pulled a gun and the men began to fight, according to police.

Knighten’s wife, Shaynan, said in an interview that she had their five children get out of the car and run to a relative’s house nearby. She and McCray’s girlfriend both got between the men and urged them to calm down, according to police.

Knighten eventually retrieved a gun from his car and fatally shot McCray, whom police said appeared to no longer be holding a gun.

Knighten’s lawyer, Dan Ross, said his client, who has been charged with second-degree murder, was defending himself. Surveillance footage shows that Knighten attempted to walk away from the dispute at least six times, but McCray kept coming after him, the lawyer said.

Another contributing factor to this year’s violence, Volker said, was the impact of the coronavirus stay-at-home order on the drug trade. Some dealers lost their regular buyers, so they sold to people they did not know — people who may have been intent on robbing them. The result has been an uptick in drug robberies and shootings, especially in late March and early April.

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