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Communities are dealing with an increase in homicides. What's behind the rise?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For the second year in a row, cities nationwide are seeing a rise in gun violence and homicides. Some are breaking murder records that were set way back in the 1980s and '90s. This follows a grim 2020. So what is behind the national rise in murders? And how are communities, cops and prosecutors responding? NPR national correspondents Cheryl Corley in Chicago and Eric Westervelt in San Francisco join us. Welcome to you both.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Eric, where is this happening?

WESTERVELT: You've got cities big and small - Philadelphia, Houston, Chicago, New York. Those have all seen spikes in shootings and murders again this year. But you're also seeing horrible homicide numbers in places like Nashville, Tenn.; Austin, Texas; Rochester, N.Y.; Portland, Ore. and Louisville. I mean, those cities and many more are on track to hit record totals. And communities feel, you know, frustrated, overwhelmed, angry. Oakland, Calif., is another city that's had a very bad year. Homicides are up nearly 40% here. The vast majority remain unsolved. One of the many is 15-year-old Shamara Young. Someone shot and killed Shamara in October as she was being driven home from getting her hair braided. It was just a few days before her sweet 16th birthday. Her mom is Chalinda Hatcher.

CHALINDA HATCHER: Shot a 15-year-old innocent child. And for what? And for what? Where's the anger? Where's the justice? Shamara loved Oakland, but her city is not stepping up for her at all.

INSKEEP: She says, for what? Surely for no gain. But, Cheryl Corley, do we know the why? Why is the homicide rate going up so quickly?

CORLEY: Well, you know, it's just really complicated. Some folks say there are fewer cops on the street because of retirements and COVID, the court system pushed to the limit. And some folks just believe it's just so many guns in the country - more than 23 million bought last year, another 18 million so far this year.

INSKEEP: Wow.

CORLEY: Then there were illegal guns involving gun trafficking and straw purchasing, where someone legally buys a gun. They get it for someone who isn't eligible. You know, the federal government set up the strike forces this summer with local law enforcement in Chicago and four other big cities to crack down on illegal guns, since so many of them are tied to crimes and murders. However, Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown says there just needs to be tougher federal laws aimed at gun trafficking.

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DAVID BROWN: Federal sentencing guidelines must reflect the severity of the national gun violence problem. Harsher penalties for straw purchasers and gun traffickers will send a message.

WESTERVELT: And, Steve, I'd just add, you know, while guns are clearly a big, big factor, police chiefs and prosecutors really don't know what's driving these killings this year. I mean, last year saw a nearly 30% rise in homicides. That was a record. And all the experts say, look. It's the pandemic. It's the pandemic, this historic disruption. schools and support programs are closed, are shuttered. Kids are alienated and isolated. But in 2021, you know, most schools reopened. Many sports and other programs resumed, at least partially. So there was this hope and expectation that the killings would level out or go down in 2021. And that didn't happen. And they don't really know why more young people continue to sort of pick up a gun and pull the trigger to settle some, you know, petty dispute or in the case of Shamara Young we just heard about, you know, to randomly shoot a kid driving home from the hair salon.

INSKEEP: Cheryl, I feel like it's also difficult to determine if there's a kind of nationwide strategy or approach that people are trying here. In past crime waves, people might have promoted community policing or the broken window theory. We could talk about trends in policing for better or for worse. But in any event, things being tried across the country. Why is it harder to see what law enforcement is doing in their approach now?

CORLEY: Well, you know, there are just really some really competing views or philosophies about what will help. And we see a lot of finger-pointing, too. Often, progressive advocates blame conservatives for not backing gun control legislation. And conservatives say progressive policies create this environment that's just ripe for violence. For example, Amy Swearer with the conservative Heritage Foundation - she says one major factor is the election of so-called progressive prosecutors. And she calls that a really troubling movement

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AMY SWEARER: It's because certain prosecutors can't be bothered to pursue criminal charges - and I think not just in one case but in many cases where offenders are too often released on bail or prosecutions are refused on their behalf.

INSKEEP: Well, let's check that assertion. Are homicides worse in cities who have these progressive prosecutors?

WESTERVELT: No, there's really no evidence of that. I mean, we're seeing homicides up in areas with traditional tough-on-crime, sort of throw-away-the-key DAs and in cities with reformist, progressive prosecutors like Philly, San Francisco and Chicago who want to roll back mass incarceration. I mean, these progressive DAs have pushed harder for bail reform, arguing that cash bail is, you know, unfair to Black, brown and poor people. And they push bail reform. But we're not seeing huge differences in homicide rates depending on the prosecutor.

And I talked to Philadelphia's progressive prosecutor, Larry Krasner. And he's faced some criticism for what, you know, many said was the sort of tone-deaf way he's talked about the record homicides in Philly this year. And he's apologized for that. But he says, look. This is a complex, big, multiheaded social problem. And prosecutors - you know, we can't solve it alone. So for Krasner, the big sort of lesson out of the pandemic is we can't return to some lock-them-up mentality. We have to continue to double down on prevention.

LARRY KRASNER: Even though we are saving the state and the county many millions of dollars by not incarcerating people who don't need to be in jail for lesser offenses, I don't have the ability to take that savings and reinvest it in drug treatment and public education and jobs programs and all these things that are highly preventative. I don't have the ability to do that, but that's something that society has to do.

INSKEEP: Is that true in Chicago, where you are, Cheryl Corley?

CORLEY: Yeah, it's true, too. But the police department says it's making some progress this year on solving cases. But the city, like many others, is just trying all sorts of approaches to curb homicides. There have been about 800 this year in Chicago. The executive director of the Chicago Crime Lab, Roseanna Ander, says part of the problem here and really throughout the country is that assumptions about gun violence are wrong, that it's not rational or preplanned.

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ROSEANNA ANDER: But in fact, a huge share of murders in the United States are not motivated by money or robberies or wars between gangs or crews over drug turf. They're very often the result of an argument that spins out of control.

CORLEY: And then there's the back-and-forth retaliation that often follows that argument, which really makes the gun violence epidemic such a spiraling tragedy and just really difficult to contain.

INSKEEP: NPR's Cheryl Corley and Eric Westervelt as we near the end of a violent year. Thanks to you both.

WESTERVELT: You're welcome.

CORLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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