‘Complex Stew’ of Factors Caused the 2020 Murder Spike

In 2020, data from nearly 12,000 law enforcement agencies released by the FBI, running through September, shows murders up 21 percent nationally, reports The Intercept. This matches data collected by The Intercept from a sample of agencies from 60 large cities showing a 36 percent increase in murders in those cities, as well as a Council on Criminal Justice analysis from 34 cities finding a 30 percent increase in 2020 compared to 2019.

The increase still leaves the murder rate nearly 40 percent below the peak rate reached in the 1990s. Murders were up at least 15 percent through September in cities of every population group, according to the FBI’s data, and the change in murders was larger in towns with under 10,000 people (up 31 percent) than in cities with over 1 million people (up 29 percent).

There are a number of contributing factors to the rise in murders: a challenge to police legitimacy and the strain of the pandemic, exacerbated by a sudden surge in the use of firearms in several cities.

Murder was up in the United States during the early spread of the novel coronavirus, before lockdowns were even ordered. The FBI’s report — which does not include data on big cities like Chicago and Philadelphia — found murder rates up 7 percent in its sample of cities through the first quarter of the year. It’s not fully clear what caused the murder rate to be higher early in 2020 compared to 2019, though a variety of factors such as increased domestic violence early in the pandemic, warmer weather, or just plain randomness may have contributed.

One theory for why gun violence increased over summer suggests that changes in policing tactics, both during and after last summer’s protests, caused the rise. But there wasn’t any connection between the number of Black Lives Matter protests and the change in murder in big cities, according to an analysis of protest data collected by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

The third phase of the murder rise likely occurred in the fall. Murder was up 21 percent through September compared to being up 15 percent through June, suggesting that violence was continuing to get worse. The year-to-date change in murder was higher through October than through July in 9 of the 14 cities with monthly murder data available, and an analysis from Boston University’s Research on Innovations for Safety and Equity, or RISE, found a second increase in murder in October in a 34-city sample.

Pandemic fatigue alongside the worsening economic and psychological strain of life under lockdown could have driven this third wave of violence. Homicide was up 30 percent relative to 2019 according to RISE’s analysis, but gun homicides were up 39 percent relative to 2019 in their sample, highlighting the role of firearms in last year’s historic murder increase. Evidence suggests that after firearms sales increased, people started employing weapons in crimes more often than ever before.

It’s possible that the complex stew of forces that drove murders higher in 2020 will continue to impact the homicide rate for years to come, so better data collection and an improved understanding of the causes of 2020’s murder rise is critical for implementing smart policies to reverse this trend.

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