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Spike in murders is easy to understand, hard to solve

By Matthew Delaney

One of the strangest elements of this pandemic has been its correlation with a massive surge in murders — despite being told every person we meet could pass a deadly virus onto us. 

FBI data released earlier this year showed that murders jumped nearly 30% from 2019 to 2020, with the Midwest being the nation’s most violent region. Homicides per 100,000 residents, the standard metric for assessing the crime, saw significant bumps in places like Indianapolis, Cleveland, and St. Louis.  

These cities provide a vivid lens into a phenomenon that neurologist R. Douglas Fields characterizes as a biological “misfire.”  

The author of ‘Why We Snap: Understanding the Rage Circuit in Your Brain’ said a large part of our brain’s wiring was done as early humans in the plains of Africa. Back then, everything from warding off strangers to defending territory were triggers for violence. While such a response isn’t appropriate in our modern world, Fields acknowledged there are so many new ways to trip one of the nine triggers he identifies. The tension produced by Covid-19 has simply made us more willing to flip those switches. 

“The triggers for violence are presented right now, during the pandemic, in ways that they weren’t before,” Fields said. “Stress is your body taking in all kinds of external and internal situational information and concluding that you’re in danger of some kind. And when you’re in danger, you put your defense system on high alert. And once that happens, you end up with misfires.” 

This concoction has turned St. Louis into “a hellhole,” according to one 13-year resident of the city. And those violent conditions are bleeding into areas where it hasn’t been before.  

Zack Reed, a former Cleveland City councilman and two-time mayoral candidate, heard the familiar “pop-pop-pop” of gunfire during a trip to the West End — a typically whiter, safer neighborhood within the city proper. He was in disbelief as he watched a silver Mercedes-Benz pulling around the corner that had noticeable bullet holes in it. 

“They don’t care, they were going for him,” Reed said about the shooters, before explaining that such instances are more acceptable in the rougher and blacker neighborhoods of east Cleveland. 

Barry Strange, a private events business owner and manager at Cigar Stanley’s lounge in St. Louis’ commercial center, said he knew of friends who withheld their business interests in the city’s downtown area because of its violence. He attributed the problems to one business in particular, which has since been shut down, but knows it damages the Gateway City’s already struggling reputation.   

Diagnosing the problem has been the easy part. Finding the right solution has proven more complicated.  

City governments across the U.S. have drawn towards the Cure Violence approach in recent years. The program frames violent behavior as a contagious disease that spreads from personal beef and other kinds of disagreements. Trained peacemakers, called violence interrupters, are deployed to mediate conflicts between individuals or a group of people before they spiral out of control — and thus, stop the spread of violence at its root.  

The program had a track record of success across the globe, including in some of the cities covered here. Reed, from Cleveland, has been a major proponent of Cure Violence after he saw the positive strides it made in Baltimore, Oakland, and New York City firsthand.  

Unfortunately, the pandemic seemed to wipe out those gains. However, that hasn’t stopped midwestern cities from trying to revive some of the program’s features into their efforts. 

The Office of Public Health and Safety in Indianapolis hosts weekly events near hotspots for crime to provide free food, groceries, information on healthcare and job opportunities to its residents. The thinking, according to a spokesperson for Indianapolis’ OPHS, is that helping address underlying factors of instability will lessen the overall instability that can lead to violence. 

Access to resources is one of the triggers that Fields, the neurologist, identified as a cause for lashing out, meaning that Indianapolis’ weekly events could play a part in keeping the temperature down. The presence of violence interrupters should help maintain order, lessen the urge for tribalism, and reduce the desire to insult each other, three other triggers pegged by Fields’ research. 

But Strange in St. Louis believes the right approach is more straightforward — just hire more police officers. 

The desire to do that has been eclipsed by how much of a challenge it is for all the departments involved. Cleveland police officers are leaving for greener pastures in better paying, less intensive jobs in the suburbs. Indianapolis police are short-staffed by about 70 officers and are looking to recruit nearly 170 in total. A total of 95 officers had left St. Louis City’s police department in 2020. As of late July this year, 92 officers had left the department. 

Dampening morale is seen as a cause of this flight, which is why many of the cities have tried to attract officers with better pay. The recurring “Ferguson Effect,” however, seems to be overpowering that appeal. 

The term came about when Michael Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer in the St. Louis metro area in 2014. A narrative sprouted up that Brown had his hands up when the officer fired his fatal shots, but that was later shown to be unfounded by a Department of Justice investigation. Officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Brown, was cleared of any wrongdoing. 

Still, national media scrutiny over police use of force has persisted and can create a chilling effect on how departments go about their business.  

Cleveland experienced its own high-profile police killing when 12-year-old boy Tamir Rice was shot and killed by an officer for playing with a toy gun. Though the incident took place in 2014, it didn’t pique the interest of LeBron James and others until the end of 2015. The following year, Cleveland saw a surge in its homicide rate, spiking from 14.91 in 2015 to 34.95 murders per 100,000 residents in 2016. 

Reed didn’t want to say that the Tamir Rice incident and subsequent focus on Cleveland’s oft-criticized police department led to the spike in the homicide rate but did tout former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “broken windows” theory that cracking down on smaller crimes prevents larger ones.  

The Ferguson effect can stifle that as well.  

Strange said an officer once told him that they were given explicit instructions to not go after anyone unless it was a murder suspect or a carjacking. That started during the height of the George Floyd protests last summer but has lingered since. For example, earlier this year, that same officer and his partner were flipped off at a stoplight before watching the car speed away. They didn’t feel empowered to do anything about it. 

“They want to be able to take care of people who need to be taken care of,” Strange said, referencing what the officer had told him. “When you just throw it in their face…it’s frustrating for them as well.”


Former Cleveland City Councilman Zack Reed said that the violence in the city’s east side is largely retaliatory, and believes that using a program like Cure Violence to cool those confrontations could go a long way on cutting down homicides.

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Matthew Delaney


Matthew Delaney is a local journalist based in Washington, D.C. When he’s not questioning why he joined the media, he’s doing his part to restore some of its credibility with quality work

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