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NewsWire: 3/26/21

  • According to a new study, the U.S. saw its largest single-year increase in homicides ever in 2020. Though most other types of crime have declined during the pandemic, shootings and killings surged in multiple cities in late spring and remained high through the fall. (The Economist)
    • NH: In 2020, cities around the country began reporting increases in homicides. Although we lack real-time nationwide crime data, a number of frequently updated crime databases for selected urban areas have tried to fill the gap. And what they are finding is that the murder rate indeed spiked.
    • The Council on Criminal Justice (CJC) recently published their 2020 Year-End Update on American crime. Researchers found that homicides rose 30% YoY across 34 American cities. If we extrapolate that increase to the entire US, that’s roughly 5,000 extra murders in 2020--on top of the roughly 16,000 killed in 2019. (For my analysis of CJC’s mid-year report, see “America’s Rising Crime Rate.”)

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    • UPenn's Quattrone Center, which maintains a database of real-time police data from 28 major cities, also found an increase in homicides. Atlanta, Chicago, and New York City all saw murder spikes in the late spring through the summer and fall.

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    • The FBI's 2020 preliminary statistics show a similar trend. The Bureau detailed a 25% homicide increase in cities that provided quarterly data. It must be noted that these data do not include New York City, Chicago, or New Orleans. If the FBI had data on these cities, the murder rate would probably be closer to the CJC’s estimate. 
    • So what caused this rise in murders? Here are some possible drivers:
      • The Ferguson Effect. This theory posits that protests and heavy scrutiny of police undermine cops' morale, making them less willing to enforce the law in dangerous situations. The theory also suggests that, as citizens grow less trustful of police, they are less likely to cooperate with them.
      • Social Distancing. Maybe it wasn't just the Ferguson Effect keeping police at a distance. Fear of contracting Covid-19 may also have deterred the public and the police from interacting with each other.
      • Increased Stress Levels. 2020 was undoubtedly a tension-filled year. Every measurable indicator of emotional distress soared. Many people could have simply snapped under the strain. Vox argues that the economic stress of a disappearing “open drug market” led to gangs warring for the remaining buyers.
      • Decreased Social Services. The pandemic led to a reduction of in-person social services, cutting back access to mental health care and drug clinics. (As we know, opioid deaths rose sharply; see "In 2020, Drug Overdoses Hit a Record High.") Some offenders may not have received the help they needed. 
      • Increased Gun Sales. In 2020, gun sales rose 40% YoY to 39.7M. While the exact correlation is debated, some studies have shown a link between increasing gun purchases and increasing shootings.
      • Reduction of Prison Population. To avoid Covid-19 outbreaks within prisons, many states let prisoners out early. To be fair, most of these inmates weren’t convicted of serious violent crimes. But again, with cut-back social services and a poor economy, 2020 was a difficult time to reenter society. It’s plausible some of these ex-convicts fell back into the wrong crowd.
    • A popular narrative is that the social isolation of strict lockdowns caused the murder spike. But that theory isn't supported by the data. Both the CJC report and the Quattrone Center statistics show that homicides (along with all other crimes) were way down in April through May, that is, during the most intense lockdown months. The murder rate didn’t rise until late spring and early summer when lockdowns eased.
    • Another suggested cause is a rise in domestic violence, perhaps induced by families forced to spend a lot more time together. But we have yet to see data supporting the link between more homicides and more domestic violence. The CJC shows slightly fewer reports of domestic violence in 2020 YoY, and Gallup's 2020 victimization survey (which does not depend on police reports) also does not show an increase.
    • As for other violent crimes, they also had a rise in 2020--but to a lesser degree than homicides. The CJC report found that aggravated assault was up 6% YoY. And the Gallup victimization survey also found that most forms of assault were slightly up.
    • Interestingly, while violent crimes increased, the overall crime rate may have actually fallen. A few weeks back, I reported on the above-mentioned Gallup victimization survey. Gallup found that household victimization was down 4% YoY and individual victimization was down 2% YoY. (See “Gallup Says Crime Rate Fell in 2020.”)

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    • How could violent crimes have risen while the victimization rate declined?
    • Two reasons. First, the victimization rate refers to the share of Americans who report being victimized by any crime during the year. That share could go down even when the average number of crimes per American is not going down. And that could happen if a smaller but rising share of Americans report being victimized multiple times. That's exactly what Gallop also seems to suggest in its recent report. In other words, the recent rise in violence may be afflicting a smaller number of at-risk people.
    • Second, nonviolent crimes are much more numerous than violent crimes. And these nonviolent crimes have been declining. The CJC report found, for example, that burglary (one of the most common nonviolent crimes) was significantly down YoY in 2020 (-24%), probably because few burglars want to enter an occupied residence. In 2019, there were 1.1M reported burglaries versus 16K documented homicides. The sheer number of burglaries means that any decline would significantly bring down the victimization rate.
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