As America emerges from the pandemic, increasing violent crime rates represent a warning to city and state leaders not to relax focus on strategies to reduce violence and address the issues contributing to criminal behavior in the nation’s most troubled neighborhoods, says a study released Friday.
The report by criminologists Richard Rosenfeld and Ernesto Lopez of the University of Missouri-St. Louis found that while murders have declined slightly since the summer of 2020, the homicide rate still rose by 24 percent in the first quarter of 2021, compared to the same period last year.
The figures amount to a 49 percent increase over the same period in 2019.
Aggravated and gun assault rates also rose by 7 percent and 22 percent, respectively, in the same quarter, according to the study released by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice (NCCJ).
The high statistical increase masked a relatively small number of additional murders or violent crimes in many of the 24 cities which provided data for the report, the authors cautioned. A 113 percent homicide rate increase in Omaha, Neb., for instance, represented an increase from three murders between January and March 2020, to seven in the first quarter of 2021.
And overall, the 2020-2021 crime rates continue to follow a two-decades-long decline in homicide across the U.S., the authors added. In 1995, there were 19.5 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 11.4 deaths per 100,000 at the end of 2020.
Nonetheless, the spike in murders and violent assaults has surprised many observers who assumed violent crime rates would parallel the decrease in other types of crime since the coronavirus spread across the U.S.
The increase is a sobering reminder that the social conditions and tensions which fueled violent behavior have not disappeared and, if anything, may have been exacerbated during a year that saw rising anger over police misconduct, the authors said.
“Cities must respond quickly and comprehensively to rising rates of homicide,” said Thomas Abt, NCCJ Director. “There are scientifically proven strategies currently available to stop violence and save lives.
“The time to act is now.”
The report’s conclusions were based on extrapolating weekly online police reports for 10 offenses in 32 cities, ranging from large metropolitan areas such as Atlanta, Chicago and Memphis, as well as smaller jurisdictions such as Norfolk, Va.
Not all cities responded with data for each offense, so the study concentrated on those cities where comprehensive figures were available. Violent crime increased in just 21 of the 24 cities where the full database could be examined.
Numerically, the increase was not as stark as the percentages might indicate. The 24 percent increase actually translated to 193 additional murders across all the cities in the sample.
And they almost entirely occurred in neighborhoods already plagued by gang violence, drug trafficking and unemployment―a factor which “requires an urgent response from city leaders,” the authors wrote.
Murder rates, in fact, began to increase in 2019 before the pandemic began, the study noted.
“As the pandemic subsides, hot-spot strategies that focus on those areas where the violence is concentrated should be redoubled,” the study said. “The anti-violence efforts of street outreach workers and other non-police actors who engage directly with those at the highest risk for violence must also be strengthened and sustained.”
Moreover, such antiviolence strategies should coincide with long-term police reforms aimed at increasing accountability as well as effort to “redirect certain police functions.”
Implicit in these recommendations was support for growing calls for police to offload the kind of crisis intervention activities that have led to violent interactions―for example with civilians who are homeless, in mental distress or are substance abusers―to social service, substance abuse or health care professionals.
“Abandoning long-needed police reform is not a viable policy option,” the authors concluded. “Change is essential to improve the relationship between police and communities and achieve durable reductions in urban violence.”
Interestingly, while nonviolent crimes fell during the first quarter―the robbery rate for example was 11 percent lower, residential burglaries dropped by 16 percent, and drug offenses were down 24 percent―motor vehicle theft increased by a hefty 26 percent.
Many criminologists suggest the hike in motor vehicle theft reflected “crimes of opportunity” by individuals exploiting the fact that most urban Americans left their cars parked or unattended during the nationwide lockdowns.
“The timing of the declines in burglaries, larcenies and drug crimes coincided with the stay-at-home mandates and business closings that occurred in response to the pandemic,” the study found.
“Quarantines reduced residential burglary. When businesses are closed, there is no shoplifting. Selling drugs on the street is more difficult when there are fewer people on the street, and drug arrests fall when police reduce drug enforcement because they have prioritized other activities.”
One other finding brought a note of caution from the researchers. Aggravated and “simple” assaults associated with domestic violence fell four percent from the previous quarter.
But the authors acknowledged that other research shows an increase in domestic violence during the pandemic, and noted that their data came from just 11 of the 32 cities in the study.
The full NCCJ study and accompanying tables can be downloaded here.
Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report.