FORT WORTH, Texas — When Antonio Robinson answered his front door in late September, he saw a familiar unwelcome face and asked, “What now?” His neighbor, Edward James Murray — a 54-year-old registered sex offender — allegedly pulled out a gun and shot Robinson five times, according to the arrest warrant. Robinson’s girlfriend called 911 as her 9 year-old son tried to stop the bleeding. Murray was not charged, and the Fort Worth Police Department did not respond to multiple calls about his case.
The same day Robinson met his untimely end, 41-year-old Cory Lashaun James opened fire on two women inside his home in South Fort Worth before turning the gun on himself. One of the women died; the other was injured but escaped. Media reports said the incident that left two people dead was a domestic violence murder-suicide.
Since March, Fort Worth has endured its most violent half-year since 1995. Murder rates around the country have soared since the pandemic landed stateside. The resulting restrictions left millions of Americans isolated, unemployed, and increasingly frustrated. There have been 97 murders in Fort Worth as of Nov. 12, compared to just 58 for all of 2019, a Fort Worth Police Department spokesperson told Spectrum News.
Both the FWPD’s homicide unit and its newly formed violent crime detail declined to comment on those numbers or why the city has seen such a sharp rise in violent crime.
Daniel Lawrence, Ph.D., a principal research associate at the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think-tank, said there isn’t just one answer to why the entire country has experienced a spike in violent crime, but many of the reasons are related to stress created by COVID-19 and the collapsing economy.
“I would say there's a lot of stressors that are going on in people's lives,” he said during a phone interview. “And this pandemic has been shown to disproportionately affect communities of color and communities with lower socio-economic status where they have fewer opportunities. Now, one or more people in the household are no longer bringing in money because their jobs don't exist anymore.”
For low-income families, the breadwinner losing their job creates a swirl of uncertainty around whether or not they’ll be able to afford basic needs, like food, shelter, electricity, and medical costs, Lawrence said. Since March 13, at least one person has lost income in 45% of households in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“Those stressors really lead to the opportunity for a crime to occur and make it much more likely to occur just because of the extreme stress that people are under right now,” he continued.
Despite the recent rise in violent crime, the overall crime rate has dropped — continuing a nationwide trend that began in the mid-’90s. Even violent crimes were historically low around the country until the pandemic created an environment rife for it.
The Council on Criminal Justice recently published a report that looks at the 1994 Crime Bill, which was signed 25 years ago by President Bill Clinton. The legislation sought to increase the prison terms served by people sentenced for violent offenses. While some states changed their laws and policies to qualify for the federal prison-construction funds, most states had already acted to boost sentencing severity.
As a result, the rate of state prison growth fell by about half, from about 7% annually before passage of the Crime Bill to less than 3% annually in the years following its enactment and the availability of the incentive funding. Congress appropriated less than one third of the authorized amount, and the federal funds supported the addition of about 50,000 prison beds, or 4% of state prison capacity at the time.
The study, Lawrence said, “noted that there was a lot of success from that bill in not only reducing crime, but getting the people out of the prison system who shouldn't have been there in the first place, really re-establishing how the prison system works, and still having a pretty large impact on the amount of crime.”
“There were community oriented policing efforts that stemmed from that bill,” he continued. “The Cops Office [Community Oriented Policing program] was established from that bill.”
That piece of legislation, along with a booming economy, reduced both the opportunity and the need for crime to occur, Lawerence added.
In Fort Worth, the The Crime Control and Prevention District (CCPD) was formed in 1995, a year after the Crime Bill was enacted. The funding program, which draws from a 1/2-cent sales tax, was created to reduce and prevent crime. The tax was recently approved for an additional 10 years by local voters amid a strong local and national push to defund police.
Despite the historically low crime rates across the nation, people around the country still perceive crime to be higher than it’s been since the mid-’90s, according to a recent survey by Gallup.
“Americans are more likely to perceive crime in the U.S. as having increased over the prior year (78%) than they have been at any point since 1993,” the study says. “Meanwhile, they are less likely to perceive more crime in their local area (38%) than at any point in Gallup's trend since 2004.
“The gap between Americans’ perceptions of more crime in their local area versus nationally is 40 percentage points — the highest Gallup has recorded in three decades of tracking both trends,” the study continues.
The study concluded that the perception of high crime is largely politically driven — specifically by Republicans and people who identify as right-leaning.
“Since last year, there has been a sharp increase among Republicans and Republican-identifying independents saying there is more crime in the U.S. than there was the previous year,” the study says. “The latest 83% among this group is up 24 points from last year and nears the previous high of 86%, measured in 2016.”
On top of a global pandemic, nationwide economic crisis, a dramatic rise in food-insecure people, and every other sad ingredient tossed into 2020’s toxic stew, the country is in the throes of a rental housing crisis.
The link between a city’s lack of affordable housing and its violent crime is inexorable. In almost every recent instance of a city or region experiencing an uptick in violence, a lack of affordable rental housing preceded it.
In 2000, in Fort Worth, there were about 39,000 units that would fall into the category of affordable housing. Though that number increased to 62,000 in 2014, the number of people who need such housing has risen. The amount of available rental units slightly decreased from 37 units per every 100 extremely low-income households in 2000 to 34 units in 2014. The pandemic, Lawrence said, has only exacerbated the problem.
“There has been actually a bit of a decline for housing units for people who are extremely stressed economically,” he said. “And that again just supports the point that these groups of individuals are facing a lot right now.”