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Preliminary data from this year shows that homicide rates are up in most major cities. The pandemic and social unrest are both possible factors in the rise.
In a year already marked by disruption and despair, many cities are also experiencing a dramatic rise in murders.
Homicide rates at various points this year were up between 15% and 42% over last year in cities all across the country, according to various reports. Though it’s difficult to make any certain statements as to why killings are on the rise, experts say one factor could be changes in policing associated with the summer’s social unrest and widespread protests for racial justice. And, of course, there is the Covid-19 pandemic, along with its spiderweb of collateral consequences.
This year’s homicide rates haven’t hit any sort of historic peak—those records are still held by the 1980s and 1990s. But the year-over-year rise in murders has experts concerned. A recent report from the Council on Criminal Justice that analyzed the homicide rates in 21 cities found that murders increased by 42% during the summer and 34% in the fall over the same seasons in 2019. The FBI’s analysis of homicides through June found killings were up 15% nationwide over last year. Data from 51 cities analyzed by crime researcher Jeff Asher found a 36% year-to-date increase over the same point in 2019.
Before 2020, the largest year-over-year rise was 12.5% in 1968. “We’ve never seen this level of increase before,” said Asher. Cities with the largest growth in murders, according to his analysis, include New Orleans, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Boston. (Asher, in response to President Trump’s assertions that crime spikes are driven by “anarchist,” Democrat-led cities, found no correlation between party leadership and a city’s murder rate, finding increases in Republican-led cities like Omaha, Nebraska and Fort Worth, Texas.)
“Forty-eight out of 51 cities I studied had an increase,” he said. “I never would have expected this.”
Other experts are similarly concerned. Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and the lead author of the Council on Criminal Justice report, said that the rise in murders “has to be taken seriously” simply because “several hundred more lives have been lost this year.”
Right now, data for 2020 is only partial—something that’s a perpetual hindrance to the real-time study of crime. A system doesn’t exist to monitor up-to-date numbers on murders in the way the government watches unemployment figures. Often researchers have to contact each individual police department for their totals, which limits their ability to get a comprehensive picture of what’s going on, especially outside of major cities.
Whether 2020 will end up proving to be an anomaly in the otherwise downward trajectory of murder rates since 2016 is yet to be determined. “There’s reason to believe it might not be [an indication of a trend] given a lot of specific factors in 2020 that will hopefully abate next year,” Asher said. “Sometimes agencies will point to ‘little picture’ things like having to furlough 30 officers or spending more time patrolling protests, but the further we get from individual cities and think of the grand scheme driver of this, the closer we’ll get to an answer.”
The pandemic, Rosenfeld said, “looms large as a factor” in the rise, something numerous other crime scholars agree with. The stresses of the pandemic—declines in mental health, widespread unemployment, millions facing possible eviction—could all be contributing to the rise in murders. The pandemic could also explain why specific crime rates are diverging from each other—why, for example, murders are up but other violent crimes like robberies are down. As Rosenfeld explains, the pandemic may be increasing motivation to commit crime but reducing opportunity. When people are staying at home, they’re less likely to be random targets of crime on the street, and they’re also less likely to have their home burglarized as perpetrators avoid occupied households.
Another factor could be the widespread social unrest of the summer following the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in May. There’s two intertwined theories here: local police departments diverted resources to respond to protests and that, in turn, helped decrease the legitimacy of the police in communities that already had a fraught relationship with law enforcement. Similar spikes in homicides were seen after the riots of the 1960s and after the protests following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2015. The nature of the linkage between unrest and murder rates “remains something of a mystery,” said Rosenfeld, but added that law enforcement should prepare for increases after police altercations between white officers and Black or brown citizens become widely publicized.
Advocates for changing policing in cities say both protests and the increase in homicides underscore profound inequities in many communities. “Ultimately this comes down to anger and frustration in our communities,” said Quaniqua Carthan-Love, the director of planning and programs at Cities United, an organization that supports a national network of mayors working to reduce homicides and gun violence, particularly among young Black men.
“What we’re seeing now is not as much of an anomaly as people would like to believe,” she said. “This whole year has been an outpouring of anger—and that feeling of hopelessness is not new, especially in Black and brown communities.”
While the causes of the increase in murders are up for debate, so too are the solutions.
Some experts believe cities need to focus on policing by redoubling their presence in neighborhoods or particular blocks with high crime rates, sometimes called “hot spot” policing. Or they suggest employing focused deterrence strategies that target potential perpetrators—something police leaders in Baltimore decided to try this month amid reports that they’ll end the year with more homicides than last year. Rosenfeld, who supports stronger policing measures to combat violence, also said cities “have to do everything possible to repair the relationship between police and communities of color” and emphasized this means seriously embracing police reform.
“It doesn’t mean defund the police,” he said. “It means making good faith efforts at reform using the essence of the proposals we’ve seen from protesters—things like improving accountability and transferring out of the police department responsibilities they’re ill-prepared for, like responding to drug overdoses and homelessness.”
Others fear that putting more police in neighborhoods with high murder rates will only antagonize the situation. “If we continue to overpolice Black and brown communities, it will only make it worse,” said Carthan-Love. “The needs in the community need to be addressed.”
Protests this summer sparked renewed calls for racial justice and systemic reforms, not just in policing but also in economic policy, housing, and education. Carthan-Love emphasized that communities with high rates of violence too often are left out of conversations about what is needed to create better government responses. She’d like to see local leaders put dollars behind more community-driven solutions: trusted violence interrupters like those in Philadelphia’s No More Red Dots program, cognitive behavioral therapy for at-risk youth and increased access to health services.
One response nearly all experts can agree on is this: subdue the pandemic. Getting Covid-19 case rates and deaths under control would not only give people back some certainty in their lives and boost the economy, but would also allow for the resumption of hands-on deterrence activities like social worker visits to gunshot victims in hospitals—something that’s been proven to reduce gun violence but has been largely halted as the virus makes hospitals too dangerous for all but essential personnel.
Another factor that could change the nation’s response going forward is the election of Joe Biden, who will be sworn in as president next month and campaigned on increasing federal spending on local criminal justice efforts. There are big opportunities for both funding and collaboration between cities and the federal government, Carthan-Love said. “We know the work happens on a local level, but there are federal strategies we’ve seen in previous administrations, like the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, that could be effective again. An influx of cities are leaning into this conversation of reimagining public safety,” she said. “We’re getting a better sense of what that means, not just as a hashtag, but the operationalizing of it, the policies that will make a difference.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.