After two decades of the most remarkable crime drop in U.S. history, law enforcement has come to this: “I’m deliberately not getting involved in things I would have in the 1990s and 2000s,” an emergency-services officer in New York City tells me. “I won’t get out of my car for a reasonable-suspicion stop; I will if there’s a violent felony committed in my presence.”

A virulent antipolice campaign over the past year—initially fueled by a since-discredited narrative about a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo.—has made police officers reluctant to do their jobs. The Black Lives Matter movement proclaims that the police are a lethal threat to blacks and that the criminal-justice system is pervaded by racial bias. The media amplify that message on an almost daily basis. Officers now worry about becoming the latest racist cop of the week, losing their job or being indicted if a good-faith encounter with a suspect goes awry or is merely distorted by an incomplete cellphone video.

With police so discouraged, violent crime has surged in at least 35 American cities this year. The alarming murder increase prompted an emergency meeting of the Major Cities Chiefs Association last month. Homicides were up 76% in Milwaukee, 60% in St. Louis, and 56% in Baltimore through mid-August, compared with the same period in 2014; murder was up 47% in Minneapolis and 36% in Houston through mid-July.

But something more fundamental than even public safety may be at stake. There are signs that the legal order itself is breaking down in urban areas. “There’s a total lack of respect out there for the police,” says a female sergeant in New York. “The perps feel more empowered to carry guns because they know that we are running scared.”

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