Last year, an alarming increase in homicides left communities — often in lockdown — reeling as officials searched for answers. That was evident at lots of news conferences as police officials and mayors in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City rolled out dire news.
At the end of 2020, Chicago police reported more than 750 murders, a jump of more than 50% compared with 2019. By mid-December, Los Angeles saw a 30% increase over the previous year with 322 homicides. There were 437 homicides in New York City by Dec. 20, nearly 40% more than the previous year.
Mayor Bill de Blasio says the uptick should worry all New Yorkers and it has to stop.
"It's clearly related, in part, to the coronavirus and to the fact that people are cooped up," de Blasio said. "And it's certainly related to the fact that the criminal justice system is on pause and that's causing a lot of problems."
New Orleans-based data consultant Jeff Asher studied crime rates in more than 50 cities and says the crime spikes aren't just happening in big cities. With the numbers of homicides spiking in many places, Asher expects the final statistics for 2020 to tell a startlingly grim story.
"We're going to see, historically, the largest one-year rise in murder that we've ever seen," he says.
Asher says it has been more than a half-century since the country saw a year-to-year murder rate that jumped nearly 13%.
"We have good data that the rise in murder was happening in the early stages of the pandemic. We have good data that the rise in murder picked up in the early stages of the summer," Asher says, "and we also have good data that the rise of murder picked up again in September and October as some of the financial assistance started to wear off."
Chicago minister the Rev. Marshall Hatch Sr. says the spike in violence is sadly not surprising. His church is located in a west side Chicago neighborhood hard hit by both poverty and the pandemic.
"COVID has had a disproportionate impact and people are increasingly desperate," Hatch says. "And people, because of the concentration of poverty, tend to turn on each other."
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says there may be factors beyond pandemic-related economic and mental health issues at play. He is lead author of a new report from the Council on Criminal Justice, which focuses on the pandemic, social unrest and crime following George Floyd's killing by police in May.
Rosenfeld says there has been some respite since property crimes took a nosedive as the pandemic began.
"Burglaries were down. Larcenies were down. You know quarantines kept people at home and burglaries tend to avoid occupied households," he explained. "When the shops are closed, there's no shoplifting, so larceny is reduced."
Even with gradual reopenings, Rosenfeld says, the number of property crimes in 2020 was still much lower than the previous year, but homicides climbed significantly in 28 cities he studied — places such as St. Louis, Kansas City and Milwaukee. He also says the risk of homicide in neighborhoods often plagued by gun violence was much higher in 2020 than in 2019.
Kim Davies, interim dean of Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Department of Social Sciences at Augusta University, says that's where confrontational homicide is often the cause.
"It's homicide where two people, mostly men, get into some kind of confrontation over, you know, who's more manly and nobody backs down," says Davies. "And before you know it, somebody pulls a weapon and it often ends in violence."
Davies says that's especially true during a time when so many are in flux as the country wrestles both with the pandemic and social unrest. The questions now are whether the big jump in murders is a one-year blip and what might push that back down. Yale University Law Professor Tracey Meares says COVID-19 vaccines will help since the pandemic has prevented many anti-violence programs from operating.
"It requires a great deal of a face-to-face contact, typically, among service providers and the folks who are most likely to both commit these offenses and be the victims of them," Meares says. "And it's a lot harder to do that when people can't meet in person."
Which means that some of the very things that have successfully prevented homicides in the past just aren't available until the COVID-19 vaccines become more widespread and the added daily stress posed by the virus diminishes.