Mar 25, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Murder rates rose sharply in U.S. cities in 2020

Pandemic-induced fear, economic hardship, domestic discord, racial strife and an influx of guns helped propel the urban homicide rate by a record amount last year, a new report says.

Why it matters: A drumbeat of dire reports about rising crime has left city dwellers justifiably scared — and policy makers should be addressing the pandemic and violent crime at the same time, the report's authors say.

  • Anti-violence programs should be a priority, according to the report released by Arnold Ventures — a philanthropy focused on solving societal problems — and the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.
  • Relations between communities and the police should be mended, the authors say, and street outreach workers should be deployed to help defuse tensions.

Driving the news: "In a sample of 34 cities, homicide rates were almost 30% higher in 2020 than in 2019, a jump that claimed an additional 1,268 lives," per the report.

  • Prior to 2020, the biggest single-year increase in the murder rate was 12.7%, in 1968, the report said.
  • While the three largest cities — New York, L.A. and Chicago — accounted for a disproportionate amount of the rise, higher homicide numbers were seen in cities large and small.
  • Aggravated assaults and gun assaults rose as well, according to the report's lead authors, criminology professor Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and Thomas Abt of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

What they're saying: "This is a policy call to action," Asheley Van Ness, director of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, tells Axios.

  • "Now is the time that you need to be able to solve these problems at the same time — in terms of policing, community relations, violence."
  • "Just defeating the pandemic is going to be critical to lowering those violent crime rates."

The silver lining: Residential burglary rates dropped by 24%, the report found, and drug offenses by 30%.

  • But: motor vehicle theft rose by 13%.

Of note: So far, the elevated murder rate has carried into 2021, the New York Times reports.

  • A tally of homicides by the F.B.I. — which looked at different data from Arnold Ventures — found a 25% rise in 2020, which would "mean the United States surpassed 20,000 murders in a year for the first time since 1995," the NYT said.
  • Possible reasons include "the various stresses of the pandemic; the surge in gun sales during the crisis; and less belief in police legitimacy related to protests over police brutality."

The bottom line: Nobody knows exactly why crime rises and falls, but poverty and economic insecurity seem to be key drivers.

  • "Subduing the pandemic, increasing confidence in the police and the justice system, and implementing proven anti-violence strategies will be necessary to achieve a durable peace in the nation's cities," the Arnold Ventures report says.
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