After years of declining violent crime, several major American cities experienced a dramatic surge in homicides during the first half of this year.
Milwaukee, which last year had one of its lowest annual homicide totals in city history, recorded 84 murders so far this year, more than double the 41 it tallied at the same point last year.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said the mounting homicide toll in his city of 600,000 is driven by Wisconsin's "absurdly weak" gun laws – carrying a concealed weapon without a state-issued concealed carry is a misdemeanor in the Badger State – as well a subculture within the city that affirms the use of deadly violence to achieve status and growing distrust of police in some parts of the city.
Milwaukee is not alone.
The number of murders in 2015 jumped by 33% or more in Baltimore, New Orleans and St. Louis. Meanwhile, in Chicago, the nation's third-largest city, the homicide toll climbed 19% and the number of shooting incidents increased by 21% during the first half of the year.
Chief Dotson addresses STL crime issues:
In all the cities, the increased violence is disproportionately impacting poor and predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods. In parts of Milwaukee, the sound of gunfire is so commonplace that about 80% of gunshots detected by ShotSpotter sensors aren't even called into police by residents, Flynn said.
"We've got folks out there living in neighborhoods, where . . . it's just part of the background noise," Flynn told USA TODAY. "That's what we're up against."
Criminologists note that the surge in murders in many big American cities came after years of declines in violent crime in major metros throughout the United States. Big cities saw homicides peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s as crack-cocaine wreaked havoc on many urban areas.
The homicide toll across the country — which reached a grim nadir in 1993 when more than 2,200 murders were counted in New York City — has declined in ebbs and flows for much of the last 20 years, noted Alfred Blumstein, a professor of urban systems and operations research at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Several U.S. cities – including Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego and Indianapolis – have experienced a decrease in the number of murders so far this year.
Blumstein said the current surge in murders in some big cities could amount to no more than a blip.
"It could be 2015 represents us hitting a plateau, and by the end of the year, nationally, we'll see that murder rates are flat or there is a slight bump up," Blumstein said.
But other experts say the surge in killings suggests that the United States may be nearing a floor in reducing its murder rate as the federal, state and local governments increasingly grapple with tighter budgets.
"Why is there a synchronicity among these cities?" said Peter Scharf, an assistant professor at the LSU School of Public Health whose research focuses on crime. "One reason may be President Obama is broke. Governors like Bobby Jindal are broke, and mayors like (New Orleans' Mitch) Landrieu are broke. You don't have the resources at any level of government to fund a proactive law enforcement."
Baltimore and Ferguson effect
So far this year, Baltimore recorded 155 homicides, including three people who were killed late Tuesday evening near the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus. The 2015 homicide toll is 50 people higher than it was at the same point last year.
On Wednesday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake fired Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, citing the spike in murders in the city.
The firing also came as the police union was set to release a report hammering the department's response to the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, who died one week after sustaining a severe spinal cord injury while in Baltimore police custody. Gray's treatment was held up by protesters as an example of the endemic problem of police brutality in the city and beyond.
"We cannot grow Baltimore without making our city a safer place to live," Rawlings-Blake said. "We need a change. This was not an easy decision, but it is one that is in the best interest of the people of Baltimore. The people of Baltimore deserve better."
The Charm City, which is seeing some of the worst violence since the 1990s when it routinely tallied 300 murders annually, recorded 42 killings in May alone.
St. Louis logged 93 homicides compared with 58 at the same point last year. The increased violence this year in St. Louis follows the city recording a more than 30% increase in murders in 2014, when police in the city saw a steep rise in violence following the shooting death last August of Michael Brown, a black teenager, in nearby Ferguson by a white police officer.
2015 St. Louis City homicide map:
Police have made arrests in only 29 of this year's homicide cases, suggesting witnesses are increasingly showing a reluctance to come forward.
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson said that he's increasingly looking to federal authorities to get involved in cases in the city in the hopes of spurring witnesses to come forward. St. Louis Police and several federal agencies also plan to announce a new partnership next week aimed at reducing the violence in the city.
"Our clearance rates aren't where I'd like them to be," Dotson said in an interview. "We do have some things working with the feds that I think will start sending a very clear message (to the public) in the next three to four weeks.
New Orleans has recorded 98 homicides so far this year compared with 72 at the same point last year, according to a count kept by Scharf, the LSU analyst.
The bloody summer in New Orleans — the city of about 380,000 recently tallied seven murders in an eight-day period -- is shaping up to be one of the most brutal the city has seen in years, Scharf said.
7-year-old takes bullet meant for Dad
Chicago's homicide toll stood at 203 as of June 28, up from 171 at the same time last year, according to police stats. The city is still well below pace of 2012, when Chicago recorded more than 500 murders for the entire year.
The Windy City, which recorded more murders than any other municipality last year, experienced a bloody July 4 weekend in which 11 people were killed and more than 50 others were wounded. One of this weekend's victims was 7-year-old Amari Brown, who police said was struck by a bullet that was likely intended for his father, a high-ranking gang member.
The boy's father, Antonio Brown, had 45 arrests on his rap sheet—including an April arrest on a gun charge. Brown was out on bail at the time of his son's killing.
"If you think that putting more cops on the street would make a difference, then take a look at the fact that we put a third more manpower on the street for this weekend," Chicago police superintendent Garry McCarthy told reporters at the end of the bloody holiday weekend. "What's the result? We're getting more guns. Well, that's great. It's not stopping the violence."
In New York City, there were 161 homicides in the city for the first half of 2015 vs. 145 during the first half of 2014. Shootings in the city rose to 542, from 511 in the same period last year.
New York recorded 328 homicides last year, the lowest annual murder toll for the city in more than 50 years.
"It's so phenomenally low that it can hardly go in any direction but up," said Blumstein, the Carnegie Mellon analyst.
Synthetic drug influx spurs killings in D.C.
The homicide toll has risen several other major U.S. cities in the first half of the year, albeit at less dramatic pace.
In Philadelphia, murders are up slightly, with the city recording 123 thus far this year compared with 117 at the same point last year. The murder rate, however, is far lower than it was in 2012, when the city had recorded a whopping 187 murders by July 7 of that year.
Dallas has tallied 68 murders so far this, up from 53 in 2014, according to police department statistics. San Antonio counted 53 homicides through June, compared with 43 last year.
Meanwhile, Houston Police reported 73 murders in the first quarter of 2015, compared with 46 during the same period last year. The police department for the fourth-largest U.S. city has yet to release its murder tally for the second quarter of 2015.
Minneapolis had 22 murders in the first half of 2015, compared with 15 during the same period last year.
In Washington, D.C., the homicide count stands at 73 compared with 62 last year. Police and politicians in the nation's capital have connected the spike in murders to the influx of synthetic drugs, including K2, spice and others which are said to mimic the effects of marijuana.
Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier expressed confidence that the rate could be brought down. Non-fatal shootings and assaults in the district are down 17%, indicating violent incidents aren't more common this year, just deadlier.
"We experience spikes in violent crime every year," Lanier told WUSA9. "It's the when and where it happens that makes it different."
Contributing: JJ Hensley of the The Arizona Republic