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Halfway through 2020, Milwaukee homicide rate is highest it’s been since the early 1990s
Halfway through 2020, on top of a deadly pandemic and rising tensions between police and the public, Milwaukee has been tormented by a homicide rate not seen in this city since the crack epidemic of the 1990s.
As of the July Fourth holiday, 86 people have been killed in homicides in Milwaukee in 2020, which is double the number of victims at the same time in 2019, according to police.
Should that number again double to 172 victims over the next six months, Milwaukee will face a homicide reckoning it hasn’t seen in recent memory. It would top the 165 lives lost in 1991, during the height of the troubled 1990s in which more than 100 people were killed every year and more than 120 were killed in nine out of 10 years.
The set-up for the next six months comes after another tragic rash of violence in which five people were shot and killed, including a 16-year-old girl, over a 20-hour period between June 30 and July 1. The numbers are so alarming that Mayor Tom Barrett publicly pleaded for peace over the long and hot holiday weekend on Friday.
“I am very troubled by what I’m seeing in Milwaukee this year,” he said.
And it’s all happening at a time when multiple forces — all inter-related —are destroying any semblance of normalcy: the coronavirus pandemic; the economic downturn; the heightened levels of racial tension, particularly involving police; and several bouts of civil unrest.
“Our hope is that this is an anomaly year just given all the different crises that we’re dealing with this year,” said Reggie Moore, director of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention.
Domestic violence exploding
The spike in violence comes after a four-year decline in homicides, following 147 killings in 2015. In 2019, the city saw 97 homicides, down from 99 the year prior and 119 in 2017.
Inspector Terrence Gordon, speaking before a Common Council committee on June 4, said Milwaukee’s 2020 homicide rate kept pace with previous years during the first two or three months of the year, until two especially tragic events and the coronavirus pandemic changed things.
In February, a gunman killed five co-workers and himself at the Molson Coors complex. Two months later, another gunman killed four teens and one woman inside a home in the North Division neighborhood.
Those events rank as two of the worst mass shootings in Wisconsin since 2004.
From there, Gordon said, violence picked up. Many homicides were the result of arguments, “a lot of people settling scores” and conflict in the marijuana trade.
But where things really have deteriorated is with family and intimate partner violence. As of June 4, Gordon said 35% of homicides were a result of such violence, when typically that number rests in the single digits from year to year. He said he’s never seen it higher than 17% before.
“That’s more than a third,” he said. “That’s huge.”
Much of that likely comes from increased tensions and stress during the coronavirus pandemic, Moore said. Gordon also suggested the pandemic was a factor.
The pandemic has brought financial hardship and a host of other uncertainties and stressors. Kids are out of school, parents might not be working and people may be stuck at home with abusive partners. Nationally, the pandemic has also spurred an increase in gun sales.
The virus has inflamed anxieties and economic and racial disparities already present in neighborhoods where violence has historically been present, according to Moore.
He said the same factors are playing out in other U.S. cities, causing an increase in violence. He called it “the perfect storm.”
First-time calls to the Sojourner Family Peace Center hotline have gone up since the pandemic, Moore said. Many victims weren’t on anybody’s radar before.
“That underscores the level of stress and trauma that the pandemic has created, on top of the already ongoing stress and trauma from concentrated poverty and unemployment and other issues that families were struggling with,” Moore said