For today’s Critical Issues report, PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler interviewed leaders of four police departments in different parts of the country whose cities are experiencing sharp increases in homicides and nonfatal shootings.

Key Takeaways

-- Multiple factors appear to be driving increases in homicides and shootings, including changes to the court system due to the pandemic, the diversion of resources to manage demonstrations, and officer hesitancy due to recent scrutiny of the police.

-- Several police executives report that minor disputes have been more likely to escalate to shootings and homicides. This may be due to the general increase in people’s stress levels during the pandemic.

-- In some cities, the reopening of bars and nightclubs has coincided with violence associated with those locations. In Cincinnati, after-hours party hours, including some at rented Airbnb properties, are leading to violence.

-- To address these increases, agencies are targeting the individuals driving the violence, working with local and federal prosecutors to bring charges, and using NIBIN (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network) to identify the guns being used.


Syracuse, New York

Through August 10th, homicides were up 33% in Syracuse compared to 2019. There were 127 shootings in that time period, compared to 102 shootings for all of 2019.

Chief Kenton Buckner

Like other cities, we are trying to navigate a “perfect storm,” with the pandemic, protests, and reform hitting our city at the same time. Syracuse struggles with crime under normal circumstances. When you add all these challenges to a city that struggles with a 32% poverty rate, that’s very, very difficult for us.


Deputy Chief Derek McGork

Our number of incidents of shootings with injury is up about 147% this year over last year. The number of incidents of shootings with injury or death is up 131%. And the number of shooting victims injured or killed is up 135%.

I think there are a number of reasons for that. The majority of our gun violence is driven by gang or group activity. There are also a number of shootings related to drug activity, and many of those are intertwined with the gang activity.

Because of health concerns and wanting to prevent the spread of the virus both within the police department and in the community, we issued temporary operating procedures in mid to late March directing our officers to decrease proactive activity, including avoiding traffic stops for all but the most serious traffic offenses. We lifted that temporary operating procedure toward the end of May. While the procedure was necessary to decrease the spread of the virus, we did notice an increase in violent crime. I think our decrease in proactive activity allowed an opportunity for some crime to occur. It was successful in terms of the virus, because we didn’t have any infections in the police department related to a job function. But we did see a significant increase in gun crime in April and May.

One of the other issues was that the court system suspended certain activities and proceedings during the course of COVID. From mid-March until fairly recently we did arraignments, most of which were virtual, but we didn’t have any grand juries and there weren’t any suppression hearings or trials. So people who were not incarcerated, such as those out on bail, released on their own recognizance, or on pretrial release, didn’t need to be in court for hearings or trials. I think that contributed to some of what we’re seeing.

We’ve also seen a correlation between the widespread criticism of law enforcement and an increase in our nonfatal shootings and homicides. As steep as our increase in gun crime was in April and May, the increase in June was even more noticeable. I think there are probably a couple different reasons for that. In the beginning of all this, we dedicated a significant amount of manpower to safeguarding protesters. Those protests and marches were a daily occurrence and lasted for well over a month. While that task is certainly important, it does detract from our ability to deploy those officers where we might otherwise, such as our problem-oriented policing areas.

Officer morale has been impacted. A number of our officers have expressed a hesitancy to be proactive. There seems to be a very legitimate concern by the officers and detectives engaging in proactive details that, given the view of the police at the moment, if they’re involved in a lawful use of force or arrest that doesn’t look good, their jobs may be in jeopardy and their families may be dragged into media coverage.  We have noticed a significant decrease in proactive stops year-to-date this year compared to last year. That was certainly the case while we had the temporary operating procedures in place for COVID, but also after we rescinded those procedures and told everyone to go back to normal operations with personal protective equipment. So that seems to confirm what officers are telling us anecdotally about their hesitancy to get involved.

We’ve also had some issues with recently passed state legislation. New York State passed criminal justice reform legislation that I think has contributed to some of what we’re seeing with gun crime. One part of that legislation is a discovery law that says that prosecutors have to turn over victim and witness information to a defendant much sooner than they had to before. That information has made it out to the street. On a number of homicide and nonfatal shooting investigations, victims and witnesses have told our detectives that they’re not going to cooperate because they know their information is being turned over to the defendant fairly quickly. They have some valid concerns about retaliation, and that has hindered some of our investigations.


Montgomery, Alabama

With 44 homicides as of August 18th, Montgomery has already passed its homicide total for all of 2019.

Chief Ernest Finley

The majority of homicides we’ve had are acquaintance arguments. A couple were related to robberies. And then some happened in clubs or bars where an argument escalated into a fight and then a shooting. When we were taking a deeper dive on our homicide increase, we thought it may be gang-related. And there may be some gang affiliations, but we’re seeing cases that stem from a short fuse or an argument or some sort. They aren’t occurring in the areas where we’ve frequently had homicides over the previous years, such as apartment complexes that are known for a lot of gang-related activity.

We have our issues, and we’re trying to address them as quickly as possible. One good thing is that we get community support with letting us know who the shooters are, so our clearance rate is a little above average at 65%.

When COVID initially happened we thought it might be domestic-type situations, with people bottled up in one home or community, that would be an issue. But it’s those acquaintance arguments that are really challenging us.

There’s no particular rhyme or reason. If it is gang-related, we deal with those gangs. And if the spontaneous things happen, we try to jump on those issues.

Now we’re working with our federal partners and local district attorney to be aggressive on these gun shooters, gun toters, and repeat offenders. We’re identifying these individuals and doing targeted enforcement.

Just before COVID hit, we had two homicides in bars and speakeasies in Montgomery. When COVID hit, we had a 10:00 p.m. curfew in place for about two months, which helped us out tremendously. Recently, the clubs opened back up, and we just recently closed two back down. We had a couple shootings in those clubs, and those were feeding a lot of the issues in our jurisdiction.


Wichita, Kansas

As of early August, homicides were up 55% and shootings were up 63% in Wichita compared to 2019.

Deputy Chief Jose Salcido

Our drive-bys are up 117% over last year, and there are a number of factors. We do a good job getting high bonds, but the bondsmen are doing pennies on the dollar for the bonds. It’s a very competitive bond market, and they’ll cut a deal just to keep their business. We just had a shooting where a guy was out on bond for murder, which is when we started identifying this problem.

The courts suspended jury trials, and I can’t imagine what it’ll be like when the courts open up. We’re not even talking about property crimes yet, just violent offenders waiting for their turn in court.

Many of our murders are meth-related. Typically meth was isolated to Caucasians, and now we see it across the board.

Fuses seem to be shorter during COVID. In the past, people would fight. Now they’re pulling guns out. We’re seeing that in gang and juvenile shootings. It used to be when you’d have a drive-by you’d pick up two or three shell casings. Now there are 30 or 40 rounds from multiple guns.

The new thing we started seeing a couple weeks ago is car-to-car shootings. They’re not even stopping.

They just suspended high school sports here, and I think that will cause a bit of a spike because kids won’t have after-school activities.

The city council wants us to do mask enforcement, but we think that will impact our relationship with the community. We’ve always had an 88%-94% homicide clearance rate because of our bonds with the community. If we have to tell people to put their mask on or give them a ticket and are seen as the bad guys, we think we’ll lose some of that.

We’re a new NIBIN site, and initially that was quite the culture change for our detectives. But now we can’t do without it. It’s pointing us to the guns involved in the shootings. Once we use NIBIN to identify an individual or group with a gun, we check their social media. We look at Facebook and Snapchat, and often the gun we’re looking for is on there. Then we’ll get a warrant to get the gun.

Since Kansas is a constitutional carry state, there was a mad dash for firearms. So there are a lot of guns out in the community. We diligently track the number of guns taken from cars, because they turn up with our juveniles who shoot at each other. Kids in Wichita know that if you need a gun, all you have to do is go to the suburbs, break into five cars, and you’ll probably come out with two or three guns. We do a lot of public announcements about locking your guns and taking them inside. We partnered with a local range to provide a discount on car gun safes. People just don’t take their guns inside their houses, and kids know.


Cincinnati, Ohio

Cincinnati has seen a 19% increase in homicides year-to-date compared to 2019.

Assistant Chief Michael John

When you look at the breakdown of the homicides, we are seeing the sudden disputes that escalate. In some cases there might be an underlying feud, but it seems like they spark very quickly. There seems to be an edge out there in the streets. We’ve seen an uptick in domestics, but the biggest factor is those sudden disputes, especially when people start gathering outside. With the limitations on restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, people want a release. They are taking those activities into the streets in groups, and those spark into violence. We had an incident 10 days ago where we had 11 people shot, two fatally, in a park where they were drinking alcohol.

We’re also seeing a big uptick in after-hours party houses. We had an Airbnb that was rented, a party broke out, an individual tried to shut the party down, and he was beaten and shot in the back. These seem to crop up sporadically and quickly. We’ve seen live Facebook footage of people being patted down as they go in, but disputes happen outside as people wait to enter. It’s difficult for us to track what’s going on in a private residence or an Airbnb. We know when there are problem nightclubs, and we can direct resources there when they’re in operation.

The manpower taken away to deal with protestors is very difficult. There’s also the natural pullback by officers based on what we’re seeing in mainstream media and social media. For the last couple months, it’s almost as if policing in general has been vilified. That’s very difficult, the officers are dealing with that, and I think the proactive work has slowed down. We haven’t asked people to slow down, but I think it’s natural. We saw this in Cincinnati when we had civil unrest back in 2001 after a controversial shooting, then we went into federal oversight. It took us about 24 months to recover from that. It takes a while to get things back to normal.

We have a very robust relationship with our U.S. attorney’s office and our local prosecutors. We’re using NIBIN and Shotspotter, and we’re very active in trying to get guns off the street. We’re trying to use federal charges with the U.S. attorney’s office when we can. We just spoke with them about people who are driving the violence in Cincinnati. It’s not that many people – maybe 65-70 people who are generally out there willing to point a gun at somebody and pull the trigger. But they’re causing this tremendous increase, with numbers like we’ve never seen before.

The citizens want to have a safe community, and, by and large, I believe people want to see us out there making the streets safer. 


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.