It's as if Milwaukee, Wis., had reverted to a state of lethal chaos. A Special Olympian is killed for his wallet as he waits for a bus. An 11-year-old girl is gang-raped by as many as 19 men. A woman is strangled, her body found burning in a city-owned garbage cart. Twenty-eight people are shot, four fatally, over a holiday weekend.
These are the kinds of crimes American cities expected never to see in high numbers again. In the 1990s police departments nationwide began applying the so-called broken-windows theory: arrest the bad guys for minor offenses, and they wouldn't be around to commit more serious ones. This zero-tolerance approach--combined with more cops on the street to enforce it, a strong economy and a fortuitous demographic change that reduced the population of young men who typically cause the most trouble--lowered the rates of murder, robbery and rape for 10 consecutive years. Until last year. Not only did crime suddenly begin to rise in 2005, but the most violent crimes led the trend. Homicides shot up 3.4%. Robberies, 3.9%. Aggravated assaults, 1.8%. Hardest hit were not metropolises like New York City and Los Angeles but cities with populations between 400,000 and 1 million--such as Baltimore, Md.; Charlotte, N.C.; St. Louis, Mo.; and Oakland, Calif.--and this year looks to see similar rates of increase, if not worse.
Few places have suffered more than Milwaukee. The homicide count for the city of 590,000 fell from 130 in 1996 to just 88 in 2004. But last year, according to FBI figures, Milwaukee saw the country's largest jump in homicides--up 40%, to 121. This year's total will probably be lower, but as the killings over that bloody holiday weekend and other crimes show, violence has returned to the city. "You'll be able to read about something even more heinous tomorrow," laments Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan. "People are scared."
Like the residents of dozens of other recently crime-afflicted midsize cities across the country, people in Milwaukee are trying to figure out why their town has suddenly become so dangerous. While the cohort of young adults is ground zero for violent crime, the reason isn't as simple as a rapidly growing population. Since the late 1990s, the number of Americans under 30 has increased at a rate consistent with that of the general U.S. population, about 6%. Some other likely explanations have emerged.
FEWER COPS ON THE BEAT
Most municipalities count on grants from the Justice Department's State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance and Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program to help pay for officers on their force. But $1.9 billion, or 45%, of that funding has disappeared since the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, as federal resources are increasingly directed toward homeland security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Midsize cities, which depend more heavily on federal funds than larger ones do, have nearly 25% fewer officers than they did in 2001, and the White House's budget proposal for next year would sweep away an additional $1.5 billion.