In 2020 the United States experienced a nearly 30 percent rise in homicides from 2019. That’s the single biggest one-year increase since we started keeping national records in 1960. And violence has continued to rise well into 2021.
To deny or downplay the seriousness of this spike is neither morally justified nor politically wise. Violence takes lives, traumatizes children, instills fear, destroys community life and entrenches racial and economic inequality. Public opinion responds in kind: Polling indicates that Americans are increasingly worried about violent crime. And if November’s state and local campaigns were any indication, public safety will be a defining issue in upcoming election cycles.
Liberals and progressives need an answer to the question of how to handle rising violence. But that answer doesn’t need to involve a return to the punitive, tough-on-crime approach that has devastated Black and brown communities for decades and led millions of people to take to the streets in protest last summer.
Patrick Sharkey is a sociologist at Princeton University and the author of “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence.” The central claim of his work is this: Police are effective at reducing violence, but they aren’t the only actors capable of doing so.
Sharkey’s research has shown that the rise of local nonprofits was an important contributor to the crime decline of the 1990s and 2000s. He has studied community-based models for addressing violence in places as varied as rural Australia and New York City. In recent years, his findings have been reinforced by study after study showing that interventions ranging from summer jobs programs to cognitive behavioral therapy to installing streetlights in dimly lit areas can produce sizable reductions in violence. As a result, Sharkey has developed a compelling, evidence-backed vision of how cities and communities can tackle violent crime without relying heavily on police.
So this conversation is about what an alternative approach to addressing the current homicide spike could look like and all the messy, difficult questions it raises. It also explores the causes of the current homicide spike, why Sharkey thinks policing is ultimately an “unsustainable” solution to crime, how New York City managed to reduce gun violence by 50 percent while reducing arrests and prison populations, whether a less punitive approach to public safety can survive our current politics, why America has such abnormally high levels of violent crime in the first place and what the $5 billion violence prevention investment tucked into the reconciliation bill could mean for the future of public safety in the United States.
This episode is guest hosted by Rogé Karma, the staff editor for “The Ezra Klein Show.” Rogé has been with the show since July 2019, when it was based at Vox. He works closely with Ezra on everything related to the show, from editing to interview prep to guest selection. At Vox, he also wrote stories and conducted interviews on topics ranging from policing and racial justice to democracy reform and the coronavirus.
(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.)
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris and Andrea López Cruzado; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin and Alison Bruzek.