Violent crime spikes, property crime eases in pandemic


The number of violent crimes committed in large American cities increased dramatically over the last year as the coronavirus pandemic raged.

A new report from the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice and Arnold Ventures found homicide rates spiking an average of 30 percent over 2019 levels last year, a rise that meant an additional 1,268 deaths in the 34 major cities the report covered. 

The number of homicides committed in 2020 was exceptionally higher than over the previous year in 29 of the 34 cities for which data was available, the report found. Cities where homicides increased by at least 50 percent over the previous year ranged from Chandler, Ariz., to Seattle, Chicago and Madison, Wis.

Only four cities — Raleigh, Baltimore, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Virginia Beach — registered a drop in homicides from the previous year. 

Aggravated assaults and assaults involving a firearm both rose by a statistically significant rate as well. Property crime rates were mostly down, though motor vehicle thefts rose by more than 12 percent over the past year.

Researchers speculated that an early decline in the number of violent crimes coincided with coronavirus lockdowns that limited interactions between potential perpetrators and potential victims. But as the year progressed, easing lockdowns combined with the stress of the pandemic to send homicide rates soaring.

The researchers also suggest that some of the rising crime rate may be attributable to strained relations between communities and the law enforcement agencies that are meant to protect them, especially after protests against the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. And there are some signs that rising crime rates may also be tied to a huge increase in gun sales at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Homicide was up all year. It was up before the pandemic started, it was up before police violence and the death of George Floyd, and it continued throughout the year,” said Thomas Abt, senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and an author of the report. “This points to multiple factors operating at the same time.”

The continued decline of property crimes may be explained by the coronavirus-inspired lockdowns. More people staying at home meant fewer opportunities to commit burglaries. More businesses being closed also meant fewer opportunities to commit larceny.

Though the study points to an alarming rise in violent crimes, the authors note that rates remain substantially below the norms of just a few decades ago. The homicide rate in the 34 cities studied in 2020 was 11.4 per 100,000 residents — just over half the homicide rate of 19.4 per 100,000 those same cities experienced in 1995. 

“These rising rates of homicide are cause for alarm but not panic. It’s very important to understand we currently have violent crime rates that are a little above half what they were at their peak,” Abt said. “We are a long way from those dark days.”

Bringing the pandemic under control is likely to help with violence reduction, the authors wrote, in part because law enforcement and public health officials have less contact with at-risk individuals. They also wrote that reducing violence will require more efforts on behalf of police agencies to rebuild trust in communities furious at brutality.

“To sustainably reduce homicide and other violent crime in disadvantaged communities, those communities must believe they are being treated fairly and appropriately by the police and other components of the justice system,” they wrote. 

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