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Cities got deadlier in 2020: What’s behind the spike in homicides?

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For those who follow urban-American history, the most remarkable story of the 20th century’s last decade has to be what’s now widely known as the Great Crime Decline. While 2020 most assuredly will be remembered for the global coronavirus pandemic, it also will go down as a year marked by resurgent criminal violence that may end up spelling serious trouble for American cities — especially if they botch their responses to it.

In 1991, the U.S. saw almost 25,000 homicides — a rate of 9.8 per 100,000. The country’s deadly crime problem was then (as it is now) heavily concentrated in cities. New York City alone accounted for almost 10 percent of all homicides in 1991. ChicagoLos Angeles and Washington, D.C., together accounted for another 10 percent. Representing one of the greatest victories by the turn of the century, annual homicides were down by more than 9,000 — a decline concentrated heavily in and around America’s urban centers. 

Though the final numbers won’t be available for months, criminologists estimate that 2020 will have seen — for the first time since the mid-1990s — more than 20,000 criminal homicides. And, once again, a sizable portion of the 2020 spike occurred in urban jurisdictions — big, medium, and small: 

  • New York, which also had seen homicides rise (albeit by much less) in 2018 and 2019, saw almost 150 additional homicides and more than 750 additional shootings in 2020, representing respective increases of 45 percent and 97 percent;
  • Chicago, which hadn’t yet fully recovered from homicide spikes in 2015 and ’16, saw 274 more homicides and 1,435 additional shootings in 2020 — 55 percent spikes;
  • L.A. saw homicides jump approximately 38 percent, or nearly 100, while shootings spiked almost 40 percent;
  • D.C. closed 2020 with homicides up for the third year — this time by almost 20 percent, or 32 more deaths; 
  • Killings in Philadelphia, where year-end homicides have risen every year since 2016, were just one body shy of 500, a 40 percent increase;
  • Louisville saw homicides jump by more than 70 percent, shattering a record set in 2016;
  • Cincinnati’s homicides spiked more than 28 percent, reaching a record of 94;
  • In Detroit, shootings and homicides rose for the second-straight year, soaring by 53 percent and 19 percent, respectively;
  • Shootings in Providence, R.I., doubled, while homicides rose from 13 in 2019 to 18 in 2020; 
  • Homicides jumped for the second straight year in Minneapolis, to 84 deaths — the highest tally since 1995;
  • Cleveland had its highest murder tally since 1982, after a nearly 40 percent spike in killings last year;
  • Houston hit 413 murders in 2020 — a 42 percent increase over 2019;
  • Indianapolis saw a 40 percent bump in murders;
  • For Denver, the murder increase was 50 percent;
  • Fresno, Calif., saw its homicide numbers spike by 64 percent.

The 66 cities that responded to the Major City Chiefs Association’s year-end violent crime survey collectively saw 1,990 more murders in 2020 than in 2019, which is almost half of the 4,000 additional murders experts have estimated occurred in 2020. 

What should cities do about this? The answer depends on how they view the problem.

In the wake of last year’s increasing murders, some commentators — myself included — expressed concern about what looked like the makings of an extended violent crime wave. Others have struck a more calming note, reminding the public that despite the increase, the U.S. is still faring much better than it was in the bad old days of the early 1990s. This is true, strictly speaking, but it’s not a particularly helpful observation for a couple of reasons: First, in many cities, homicide numbers actually have neared or surpassed their early-1990s peaks. Second, murders and shootings generally are hyper-concentrated at the micro-geographic level, and the national murder rate doesn’t paint anything close to an accurate picture of how safe or unsafe those places are.

Why some are not yet willing to sound the alarm likely stems from the uncertainty regarding the cause of what seems like a widely distributed uptick in lethal criminal violence. There is a sharp disagreement about what might be driving homicides upward — one that, in many ways, mirrors the ongoing debate about what was behind the Great Crime Decline. 

Some experts have argued that the spike is a temporary side-effect of the pandemic brought on by its economic impact — particularly with respect to unemployment; but this is in tension with the broader data on violent crimes such as homicides and economic indicators, which does not reveal a clear relationship between the two. In New York, for example, the poverty rate in 1989 — the year before homicides hit a record-high 2,262 — was actually slightly lower than it was in 2016, the year before Big Apple homicides hit a record-low 292. And during the Great Recession, the national homicide rate actually declined by 15 percent, going from 5.7 per 100,000 in 2007 to 4.8 per 100,000 in 2010 — a period in which the civilian unemployment rate rose from 4.6 to 9.3 percent.

The pandemic explanation also is complicated by the fact that the homicide spike has been driven by a much narrower slice of the population than has been impacted by the pandemic. 

Perhaps what we saw in 2020 (and, in many cities, continued to see through the first quarter of 2021) has more to do with a combination of factors related to policing and criminal justice. 

For starters, recent years have seen a notable decline in the number of police on the beat. In a September 2019 report, the Police Executive Research Forum outlined what it declared a “workforce crisis.” A robust body of research has thoroughly illustrated that more police means less crime — a finding at odds with ever-more-popular calls to “defund the police.” It stands to reason that a significant decline in the sizes of the nation’s police forces could have helped set the stage for the violent crime uptick. There is also reason to believe that — in part because of the anti-police sentiments that characterized last summer’s protests — the cops we have left became less proactive

As for criminal justice more broadly, states and cities across the country (albeit to varying degrees) have experimented with various reform efforts in recent years. Examples include the expansion of pretrial release through new restrictions on cash bail; the election of so-called “progressive” prosecutors — many of whom have, among other things, diverted or declined to prosecute more cases and used their offices to reduce sentences by refusing to pursue certain kinds of enhancements; the decriminalization of certain “quality of life” offenses; new restrictions on prosecutions of juveniles; the elimination of some mandatory minimum sentences, and new restrictions on certain kinds of police activity.

Is it really so crazy to think that a successful national movement to raise the transaction costs of enforcing the law while lowering those of breaking the law might have contributed to an increase in the number of emboldened offenders on the street who then went on to do as offenders do? Whether the violent crime spike Americans experienced in 2020 is a short-lived digression, or the beginning of a prolonged deterioration of urban safety, could very well depend on the answer. 

Rafael A. Mangual is a senior fellow and deputy director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and a contributing editor of City Journal.

Tags Crime Homicide shootings urban crime Violence

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