How the crime rate is preventing some US cities from the ‘return to normal’

Concerns about US crime rates rising in the pandemic were countered with the idea that a ‘return to normal’ would deter criminal activity. But in some cities, crime is preventing a return to normal.

Olga Sagan closed the doors to Piroshky Piroshky bakery in downtown Seattle in February after a fatal shooting around the block from her business.

The surge crime in the area has made it too dangerous for her to open the store again, she said. So the Russian bakery remains closed today. 

“We cannot guarantee safety for our employees or our customers anymore. We have to close,” Sagan said. 

As cities try to go back to the hustle and bustle of pre-pandemic life, one hurdle remains: crime. Crime rates have spiked across the nation since the onset of the pandemic, and many downtown areas are still struggling to quell crime and bring people back in. 

“We always assumed once people go back to work, once kids go back to school, things are going to be better and we’ll see the crime that will go down,”  said Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “That’s certainly not what we’re seeing.” 

The FBI last year reported a nearly 30% increase in murders in 2020, the largest single-year increase since the bureau started keeping records. And violent crimes went up over 5% during the first year of the pandemic. 

While violent crimes have surged, the levels remain well below the rates documented in the 1980s and 1990s. Violent crimes in the U.S. peaked around 1991 at a rate of about 758 violent crimes per 100,000 people, according to FBI data. In 2020, that rate was around 398. 

“We’re still really far away from the bad times that some of us may remember of the late 80s and early 90s,” Herrmann said. “We’re nowhere close to that.”

Still, cities across the country – from New York to Chicago to Milwaukee to Los Angeles – have seen significant spikes in crime since the onset of the pandemic and the problem doesn’t seem to be getting any better, Herrmann said.

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In Seattle, the uptick in violent crimes in the downtown area has kept some workers from going back to the office and has impacted businesses like Sagan’s. 

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell in March released a safety plan that includes a mobile precinct in the area. Seattle police is focusing on monitoring hotspots – high-crime areas – among other strategies, as the police department deals with a staffing crisis, said Sergeant Randy Huserik, public information officer for the Seattle Police Department. 

“The city has put in a mobile precinct right in that hotspot of 3rd (Avenue) and Pike (Street) in downtown,” Sagan said,” and that mobile person has helped in the last couple months.”

Crime in public transit

Leaders in major cities like New York and Chicago, meanwhile, are tackling a surge in crime rates on buses and trains.  

With the arrival of COVID-19, ridership suddenly dropped in transit systems as businesses and schools shuttered. As ridership dropped, crime rates climbed in some cities.

“The subway and the public transit events are driven or have at least been made more apparent by the absence of riders,” said Dorothy Schulz, a retired captain with New York’s Metro-North Commuter Railroad Police Department.

In New York, for instance, the rate of violent crimes per million rides rose from 1.45 in 2019 to 2.71 in 2020, according to a report by the think tank Manhattan Institute. Between 2020 and 2021, the report noted, violent crimes increased by 8%. 

In Chicago, transit crimes were already spiking before the pandemic. Mayor Lori Lightfoot in March announced measures to address safety concerns from riders, including the deployment of more officers and security guards across the Chicago Transit Authority system.

“Though we are proud to have one of the best transit systems in the country, that reputation and everything we’re doing to keep it will mean nothing if CTA customers don’t feel safe taking public transportation,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “Violence on our transit system must end, as people shouldn’t have to fear for their lives when they’re commuting around our city.”

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Tackling crime

There’s “no one simple solution” to combating crime in the U.S., Herrmann said. 

Herrmann said the spike in crime during the pandemic could be attributed to stressors such as unemployment and housing and food insecurity. But even as the economy recovers and restrictions have been lifted, crime rates have remained high.  

As local leaders try to draw people to downtown areas, the increased foot traffic could serve as a crime deterrent

“If there’s not a lot of people around and there’s a couple bad guys there, then the bad guys are gonna see everyone as potential victims,” Herrmann said. “But if everyone is back at work, then the bad guys won’t see a lot of victims, they’ll see a lot of people that are going to mess up their victimization, their offending.” 

He said one way to address climbing crime rates could be changing policing tactics, “which to me means more precision policing, you know, arresting the right people, not harassing the wrong people,” and focusing on prevention. 

“We invest a lot of time in making sure we catch the bad guy, but we don’t invest a lot of money or time into helping the bad guy not commit a crime,” Herrmann said. 

Sagan hasn’t closed up the downtown bakery permanently yet, but she’s not sure what it will take for her to open the location again. She said, though, she’d like to see “a solid policy from the government that is consistent and reasonable” to combat crime. 

“I cannot close permanently yet,” she said, “because I’m kind of hopeful still for the community in downtown.”