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Violence soared during the pandemic; it doesn't appear to be subsiding

Violent crime soared during the pandemic and experts say the root causes will persist longer than the public health crisis. FILE - Dallas Police and members of the FBI investigate the scene on Saturday, May 15, 2021, in the Mountain Creek area of Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News via AP)
Violent crime soared during the pandemic and experts say the root causes will persist longer than the public health crisis. FILE - Dallas Police and members of the FBI investigate the scene on Saturday, May 15, 2021, in the Mountain Creek area of Dallas. (Juan Figueroa/The Dallas Morning News via AP)
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Memorial Day weekend marked the unofficial start of summer and the long-awaited return of some degree of normal life for millions of vaccinated Americans. In parts of the country, that return to return to normal was marred by violence.

Twenty-three people were shot and two were killed in a mass shooting Saturday outside a banquet hall in Miami. Nine people were killed in Baltimore over a deadly Memorial Day weekend. Police in Philadelphia reported 16 people shot in just three days. New York City, Houston and New Orleans also a spate of violence of the long weekend.

In an interview with CNN, Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo warned it would be "a long, hot, bloody summer."

Joseph Giacalone, an adjunct professor with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former sergeant with the New York Police Department, predicted this summer would "be worse than last year, for sure." He told Fox News, "It's not getting any better."

Homicide rates rose nationally by 25% last year, according to FBI statistics. For the first time in 25 years, the number of murders hit 20,000. As experts indicated, the start of 2021 was just as bad.

The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice documented a 24% rise in the number of homicides between January and March compared to the same period in 2020. That number was up by 49% compared to 2019.

The Gun Violence Archive has also documented a rise in fatal and non-fatal shootings between 2020 and 2021. Gun control advocates have linked the record rise in gun sales to social isolation, economic distress and family tensions, warning the combination heightens the risk of gun violence.

The past year has also seen a stunning rise in reported hate crimes. A recent report by the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, found hate crimes against Asian Americans were up nearly 150% in major cities. That data includes the string of violent attacks that have largely targeted older Asian Americans, like the recent assault of a 55-year-old Asian woman by a 48-year-old man outside a restaurant in New York's Chinatown.

The latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas has also sparked a new wave of antisemitic attacks in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League reported a 75% increase in reports of antisemitism during the conflict.

Other incidents have occurred seemingly at random, with an individual is assaulted by a complete stranger. Last month, a 25-year-old nurse was hit in the head by a stranger near Penn Station in New York City. More recently, a 28-year-old Missouri man was sentenced to seven years in prison for viciously punching a 12-year-old boy last summer.

Incivility, while more difficult to measure, also appears to be continuing even as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and Americans can move around more freely.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA reported that its members have seen 20 times the amount of aggression and violence directed at them than in a typical year. Hundreds of passengers have been banned from flights for unruly behavior, with much of the outrage directed at face mask requirements—though not all.

Last week a 28-year-old female passenger punched a Southwest Airlines flight attendant in the face, knocking out two of her teeth after she asked the passenger to put on her seat belt for landing. The woman was arrested and the flight attendant was treated for her injuries.

Service workers have been spat on, assaulted and in a few cases shot for enforcing mask mandates. Several NBA players have been assaulted as stadiums reopen to fans. Health care workers, already under pressure, have reported more incidents of workplace violence. Researchers have documented a rise in domestic and family abuse.

Experts have attributed the rise in violence over the last 14 months to varioustranslat causes: social isolation, financial distress, widening inequality gaps and the anxiety accompanying a general breakdown of societal norms.

Americans are turning a corner on COVID-19, enjoying more freedoms outside of their homes, more opportunities to congregate with others. Yet, that has not immediately translated into reducing harmful behavior and experts question whether it will.

"Trauma just doesn't go away. It doesn't just go back to normal; it has to be processed," said Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College.

"There will be many people who will not, emotionally, be able to go back to normal," she continued. "And I would say aggression and violence are some of the symptoms."

Jeff Hampton, a Texas-based criminal defense attorney who has represented a number of people accused of violent behavior during the pandemic, said he expects to see more violence but for different reasons.

In Texas, which ended COVID-19 restrictions in early March, Hampton said he sees "more violent incidents related to alcohol and drug use and people having difficulty transitioning back into normal routines and social interactions." Because of those difficulties readjusting, said he expects there could be a "short term spike in violent crimes as restrictions are loosened."

In other cases, the issues that fueled the rise in violence predated the pandemic and will require attention from law enforcement, the public and policymakers long after the health crisis ends.

The Jan. 6 riot put a spotlight on the threat of racially motivated domestic extremists and the risk of violence from conspiracy theory movements. Longstanding tensions over racial inequality and class divisions were exacerbated. Distrust of law enforcement and issues of systemic racism erupted on the streets last summer following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Researchers with the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice noted it was "unclear...whether the continuing effects of the pandemic and other conditions that emerged over the past year are entirely responsible for the homicide increase seen in the opening months of 2021." In many cases, the rise in homicides began in 2019, before the pandemic and before protests against police brutality, suggesting something else could be at play.

The researchers emphasized that addressing those issues will require "evidence-based crime-control strategies and enacting long-needed reforms to policing."

However, there could be some instances where removing pandemic restrictions could help reduce the rates of violence seen over the past year.

Beidi Dong, a professor at George Mason University's department of criminology, law and society, explained that the pandemic imposed burdens on law enforcement. Many departments saw staffing shortages and officers and social service workers were limited in their ability to have face-to-face interactions with citizens that can help prevent crime.

"This is hard to predict," Dong noted. "Yet, if the more structural or root causes are not addressed, we MIGHT see a continued rise in violence despite changes in the pandemic picture."

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Many Americans are reportedly concerned about the trend. A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that nearly half of all Americans believe that violent crime is a "very big problem" in the United States. That number has increased slightly from last summer.

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