Sep 23, 2021 - Politics & Policy

FBI report likely to show record increase in murders in 2020

Illustration of a plastic evidence bag with an upwards trending bar line in it.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

If the FBI data released next week shows what's expected — that 2020 saw the highest single-year spike in U.S. murders in at least six decades — experts say the sudden job losses, fears and other jolts to society at the start of COVID-19 will likely have been the overwhelming drivers.

Why it matters: Many Democrats already feared that rising crime could hurt their party in the 2022 midterms.

  • Even with such a spike, the murder rate would remain far lower than it was through much of the 1980s and 1990s.
  • But a historic single-year spike in the same year that some Democrats called to redirect police funding because of the killing of George Floyd and other examples of systemic racism could be an easy, if misleading, campaign argument for Republicans to make.

Driving the news: The New York Times first reported Wednesday that the FBI's early data shows a 29% spike in murders last year. That would be the biggest single-year increase since national record-keeping began, in 1960.

What they're saying: William Wagstaff, a defense attorney in New York and New Jersey, tells Axios that the stresses of not being able to interact with other people and the social-economic conditions from shutdowns likely played in role in violent crime spikes.

  • "You have unemployment, you have COVID, you have all of these other things that have upended the way people were able to live," he said. "All could have contributed to a spike in violence."
  • A nationwide court backlog caused by the pandemic also may have contributed to rising crime, Robert Goldman, a licensed psychologist and attorney in Commack, N.Y., tells Axios. The backlog, he said, prevented some suspects from facing accountability or receiving the resources they need to fight addiction: "It could have contributed to recidivism rates."

What we're watching: Does 2021 trend better, or worse?

U.S. homicides per 100k residents
Data: FBI and the New York Times (2020 estimate); Chart: Axios Visuals
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