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  • Erin LeBlanc

Exploring the 2020 Homicide Spike

On September 27, the FBI released the yearly Uniform Crime Report, which confirmed a predicted 29% increase in homicides since 2019. The report breaks the data down, comparing state homicide numbers in 2020 to national numbers in the United States from 2010 to 2020. The results showed that the U.S. homicide offense count jumped from 14,548 in 2019 to 17,815 in 2020. Overall murders for 2020 were about increased to 21,570: almost 5,000 more than the previous year. The last increase in homicide to come close to this 29% record jump was 12.7% in 1968.

Photo Courtesy: Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee

The homicide trends also stand out in the context of the other crime statistics for 2020 released, which report only a slight increase in other violent crime (around 5%) and a decrease in other areas such as property crime. The Crime Data Reporter also noted variations in homicide victims across race and sex, with the highest number of murder victims in 2020 Black (about 9,913) and men (about 14,146). In addition, many individual states experienced increased homicide offense counts. For example, from 2019 to 2020, Washington increased from 204 to 298, and Rhode Island increased from 26 to 32. A few states remained constant, such as Maine, reporting 22 homicides in 2019 and 2020, and others decreased, including New Mexico, from 151 in 2019 to 139 in 2020. However, a dramatic increase of 29% overall rise begs the question: what caused this sudden upward trend?

Certain aspects of 2020 stand out as noticeably unique from past years; however, the COVID-19 pandemic that swept across the U.S. beginning in March 2020 and the murder of George Floyd, which sparked protests across the nation over the summer, stand out. David A. Graham, a reporter with The Atlantic, posits several suggestions for the increased homicide rate. He suggests COVID-19 could have exacerbated the issue with more people stuck at home, increased depression and anxiety due to job loss, and the decrease in the availability of crime programs due to the pandemic, which had previously been shown to reduce violence. This is especially significant in terms of the data released by the FBI, as handguns and other firearms primarily caused the increase in homicides, and the programs cited by The Atlantic, which were shut down due to COVID-19, had targeted gun violence reduction. A New York Times report on the subject caveats this explanation further, noting that gun purchases increased in 2020, leading to a situation primed for escalation, given that more people were simultaneously depressed by job loss and being quarantined at home while also possessing guns. They also note that police departments were often understaffed due to the pandemic.

The New York Times report also looks at the disparity in data across U.S. cities. They note that while the murder rate rose in major cities in 2020, New York, Chicago, and L.A., all reported lower rates in 2020 than in the 1980s and 90s. For example, they note that while New York experienced a murder rate increase in 2020 (up to 500 from 319 in 2019), this is still far below the murder rate experienced in the city in 1990, which was 2,200. This is significant because it indicates that the murder rate grew more dramatically in medium and small cities and towns than in bigger cities, pointing out that something besides COVID-19 may have exacerbated the murder rate in 2020.

This turns attention to the Black Lives Matter protests this summer and the response to policing in America that they prompted. The conservative news outlet the National Review offers one perspective on the crime increase in the light of the protests after George Floyd’s death. They argue that the summer protests decreased proactive policing and that recent “decriminalization and bail-reform initiatives” may be returning convicted felons to the streets more quickly. They also argue that the cities which have reported the highest crime increases (Milwaukee, Louisville, and Minneapolis) had the highest salience incidents of police misconduct, which would correlate to a reduced police presence in these areas in response to protests sparked by these incidents, and a corresponding increase in violent crime.

The Atlantic offers a potential counter-narrative and cautionary tale to the return to over-policing, arguing that perhaps murder rates spiked because people had less faith in the police and thus were more reticent to call them. They also argue that a return to the harsh police tactics of the 80s and 90s may undermine citizens’ rights and the criminal justice system. A key point is given that the over-policing of Black communities is what led to the widespread protests and calls for police reform in the summer of 2020.

Another factor contributing to the 2020 murder spike was the increase in anti-Asian American violence prompted by the pandemic. An older man died in San Francisco after being violently pushed to the ground in an attack suspected to be motivated by anti-Asian sentiment caused by the pandemic. The March 2021 Atlanta spa shootings, which killed eight people, were also thought to be a racially motivated hate crime, again speaking to the undercurrent of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States during COVID-19. This trend was exacerbated by the rhetoric of former President Donald Trump, who used phrases such as the “China virus” when discussing COVID-19, reinforcing the idea that anti-Asian sentiments surrounding the virus were mainstream.

While the proximate cause of the murder spike may be multifaceted, it is clear that the intersection of race, violence and the pandemic coincided, resulting in a record-breaking increase in homicide rates in the United States in 2020. Even though the increase has slowed in 2021, rates are continuing to rise. The underlying factors identified above have not been adequately addressed. While the United States may have achieved a greater degree of normalcy living with COVID-19 over the year, the pandemic continues to have a massive impact on daily life. As the homicide rate continues to increase after the shocking jump in 2020, it is clear that more work needs to be done to identify the underlying causes and find new ways to support violence reduction, even amid a socially and emotionally disruptive pandemic.

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