Violent crime—especially murder—shocks us all. Not only does it directly harm the victims but it also undermines the sense of security we all want to have. And, it creates difficulties for our communities. A high crime rate in a community discourages both business investment and consumption, leading to economic distress and poverty.
Yet instead of putting forward serious solutions that reflect what we know about how to reduce murder rates, Republicans are spreading fear for electoral purposes with their usual racist dog whistles, which point fingers at Philadelphia and blame District Attorney Larry Krasner.
The hypocrisy of these attacks is demonstrated in a new paper we recently released. Look at the communities represented by the three leading Republican critics of District Attorney Krasner in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
Rep. Tim O’Neal represents Washington County where murders increased by 800 percent during the pandemic. Rep. Torren Ecker represents Adams County which saw an increase of 300 percent in murders between 2019 and 2021. Rep. Josh Kail represents Beaver County which saw a 250 percent increase in murders in this same period. Meanwhile, murders increased in Philadelphia by 58 percent during this period, which is close to the 47 percent average for all Pennsylvania counties (excluding those that had zero murders in 2019).
Are Reps. O’Neal, Ecker, and Kail responsible for the extraordinary increase in murders in their counties? No, not any more than Larry Krasner is responsible for a much lower increase in murders in Philadelphia. The rise in murders during the pandemic is a nationwide phenomenon with an overall increase between 2019 and 2021 of almost 38 percent nationally.
And if we look at 38 of the largest cities in the country—which typically have higher murder rates than suburban and rural areas because they also have higher poverty rates—we can see that the two-year increase was 58%, which is almost the exact percentage increase in murders in Philadelphia in these two years. Twenty of those cities had an increase higher than Philadelphia’s, and eight of them—New York, Rochester, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Syracuse, Los Angeles, Houston, and Compton—saw a two-year increase in murders of 100% or more.
No one is exactly sure why the pandemic led to higher murder rates. Some suspect that the stress of the pandemic itself, including the economic distress and family deaths from COVID-19, was especially traumatic in low-income communities. The closure of schools and after-school programs, as well as disruption of the family, led to many young people being unsupervised too much of the time.
The pandemic forced cities, including Philadelphia, and nonprofits to curtail social services that had been having some success in reducing violence. And even those programs that continued to operate were forced to operate virtually. Gun sales increased dramatically during the pandemic, a reflection of a rise in fear that is partly explained by the rise in murders and perhaps by the pandemic as well.
What we do know is that the political attacks on Democratic politicians for the increase in murder is nonsense. A recent report by Third Way shows that the murder rate in the 25 states that voted for Donald Trump was 8.2 per 100,000, 40 percent higher than the 5.78 per 100,000 murder rate in the 25 states that voted for Joe Biden.
Eight of the ten states with the highest murder rates are red states. And between 2019 and 2020, the murder rate increased in the red states at a slightly higher rate (32.2 percent) than in the blue states (30.8 percent).
Six of the ten states with the greatest increase in the murder rate were red states.
We also have decades of research that show us how to reduce the murder rate. The connection between high murder rates and the availability of guns is long-established as is the connection between murder rates and both poverty and inequality. A political party that’s serious about reducing murder would embrace gun control and anti-poverty measures across our state.
The Republican Party, however, opposes both measures. It is difficult not to conclude that murder, (and violent crime in general) is one more political opportunity for Republicans to divide Pennsylvanians, not a serious social problem they are willing to address honestly.
And it is clear that the Republican investigation of Larry Krasner is mostly political theater carried on by cynical and hypocritical politicians who are willing to sacrifice truth and honesty to the pursuit of power.
Marc Stier is the director of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, a progressive think-tank in Harrisburg. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.