Violent crime and murder rates in major American cities continued to rise through most of last year, resulting in an “unprecedented single-year spike,” according to new research released Monday by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (CCJ) and Arnold Ventures.
Gun and other aggravated assault cases also increased, the data shows, while property and drug crimes fell — resulting in the researchers drawing connections between stressors from the pandemic and racial unrest from 2020.
The researchers examined monthly crime rates published by police departments for ten violent, property, and drug offenses in a total of 34 U.S. cities, looking at a period between January 2017 and December 2020.
New York City was the largest city in the sample, and Norfolk, Va., was the smallest per resident. Because of the range in cities and resident population, the sample size was comprehensive regarding violent crime levels in cities across the nation, the authors explain.
The study authors attributed 2020’s steep rise in homicide rates to a “perfect storm” of stressful factors, including the coronavirus pandemic, police violence with the racial and political unrest that followed, and other yet-to-be-confirmed factors.
Violent Crime Rates
For most of 2020 — particularly following stay-at-home and lockdown orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic — homicide rates climbed up to an increase of 29.6 percent compared to 2019, with a few stretches of time exceeding the 30 percent mark.
In January and February, the average city homicide rate increased by 32.5 percent compared to the same period from 2019. From March through May, the rate was 19.4 percent higher. For the summer months of June through August, the homicide rate was 37.2 percent higher. Finally, for September through December, the rate was 28.2 percent higher.
The steepest rise in the summer months is attributed to the aftermath of the May 25 murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, which sparked a movement of peaceful and violent protests across the nation.
Put in another perspective, the authors explain that these homicide increases “translates to an additional 1,268 homicides across the 34-city sample.” To add to that, the researchers note that homicides increased in nearly all of the 34 cities in the available sample.
The three largest cities in the sample, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, accounted for 40 percent of the additional murder victims in 2020, the report outlines.
While this is alarming, the CCJ and Arnold Ventures authors detail that our country has seen worse homicide rates before.
“In 2020, the homicide rate was 11.4 deaths per 100,000 residents in sample cities; 25 years earlier, in 1995, the rate was 19.4 per 100,000 residents,” the authors explain, noting this is meant to only add greater context — not diminish the severity of the problem we face today.
As many cities were grueling over this violent increase in homicides, the same cities had another problem becoming more prevalent as well — aggravated assaults. In 2020, our country saw an average 6.4 percent increase in these violent attempts on life compared to the year before.
This statistic in another perspective says there were an additional 6,741 aggravated assault victims across the sample alone.
In terms of domestic violence rates increasing, the CCJ and Arnold Ventures researchers saw a significant increase in the early months of the year correlating to pandemic lockdowns, but saw the year-end rates as compared to the same rates in 2019. To that end, the researchers note they arrived at this conclusion only by looking at the 12 available cities that published domestic violent crime rates.
Property and Drug Crime
There was a bit of good news to come out of the 2020 crime year, the authors explain, noting that property and drug crime rates fell significantly last year.
Residential burglary decreased by 24 percent, nonresidential burglary by 7 percent, robbery rates declined by 9 percent, larceny by 16 percent, and drug offenses fell by 30 percent.
The researchers attribute these findings to the coinciding times with stay-at-home mandates and businesses closing during the pandemic.
To that end, over the course of 2020, motor vehicle theft rose by 13 percent compared to 2019’s rates.
2020’s Crime Stressors
To help better understand why these increases in crimes took place, the researchers looked toward the common thread among the month periods where the stark increases can be seen and identified a connection with the COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustice movements.
They write that quarantines were most likely responsible for the decrease in burglaries since most residents were at home. When businesses closed, opportunities for larcenies and shoplifting are taken away, and drug arrests fell as police prioritized crowd control and handling the racial injustice protests throughout the second half of the year.
“The fabric of American society has been tested in unprecedented ways in the past year – by the pandemic, the struggle against racial injustice, and economic decline,” Richard Rosenfeld, Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri said of the report’s findings.
Rosenfeld continued, saying, “The combination of these stressors and a lack of effective outreach to at-risk individuals likely contributed to the elevated homicide rates we’ve seen in 2020.”
In terms of recommendations for reducing homicide and other violent offenses in the year to come, the authors first say that the COVID-19 pandemic needs to get under control as it places people and institutions “under tremendous strain.” They note that the pandemic has also impeded outreach to at-risk-individuals, leading to individuals not receiving the violence intervention that they need.
The authors also suggest much of the violence from 2019 stemmed from perceived unfairness in the justice system as it pertains to racial inequality and police brutality. The CCJ and Arnold Ventures researchers suggest that lawmakers and law enforcement agencies must heed the calls for change and make “sustained improvements in both safety and justice.”
All of these areas can be addressed simultaneously, the researchers suggest, citing national anti-violence efforts centered around community-based workers and prioritizing public health.
“The response to rising rates of homicide must not wait,” CCJ Senior Fellow and Commission Director Thomas Abt stressed at the end of the report.
“A large body of rigorous evidence demonstrates that violent crime can be addressed using strategies that are available now and do not require big budgets or new legislation to be implemented,” he concludes. “Even with the pandemic, the time to act is now.”
The full report can be accessed here.
Additional Reading: A ‘Defining Crossroads’ for U.S. Policing in 2020