America Saw a Historic Rise in Murders in 2020. Why?

Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

For understandable reasons, “2020” and “coronavirus” are going to be synonymous in the American mind for generations to come. But there was another, quieter public-health menace that killed an alarming number of Americans last year: gun violence. As Devlin Barrett put it in the Washington Post, “The United States has experienced the largest single one-year increase in homicides since the country started keeping such records in the 20th century, according to crime data and criminologists.” We only have data for the first nine months of 2020, but according to the FBI there was a 20.9 percent increase in murders compared to the same period in 2019, a genuinely shocking increase. And exploring the reasons behind that increase can help illuminate just how insidious a problem violent crime is and how difficult it is to stem these cycles of violence once they accelerate.

At the most basic level of analysis, experts view the surge as the result of a worst-case confluence of forces — the stresses of a pandemic and the intensity of the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd — that pushed already-frayed neighborhoods into spirals of violence. That can partly explain why the bloodshed wasn’t evenly distributed. Some places remained as peaceful as ever. In others, the rise in murders was even more dramatic than it was nationally. Chicago saw a 37 percent year-over-year increase between the first halves of 2019 and 2020. And in New York City, by December 20, 2020, there had been a 40 percent increase over the 2019 numbers.

Violent crime is one of many areas of behavioral science where there tends to be a stark divide between how laypeople, including many journalists, discuss the subject and how experts do. Mainstream observers often posit simple, unicausal explanations for rises or dips in the crime rate. Experts tend to view things as much more complicated. The social mechanisms driving changes in the violent-crime rate are complex and intertwined and not fully understood — and it isn’t always clear how shocks to one element of the system affect others or the whole. At the moment, the FBI has released violent-crime data for just the first nine months of 2020. So researchers are only beginning to unravel exactly what happened and consider ways to stem the tide.

It’s normal for the violent-crime rate to vary a bit year-to-year, of course, but 2020 marked a genuinely historical increase. “If you wanted to think of this as potentially erasing several decades worth of progress, that wouldn’t be an overstatement,” said Max Kapustin, an assistant professor at the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University, as well as an affiliate at the University of Chicago Crime Lab and Education Lab. In Chicago, for instance, Kapustin said that the murder rate is back to where it was in the mid- to late 1990s.

But broader context is important here, too: At a national level, even after this terrible year, the rate of violent crime in America is nowhere near where it was at its peak in the second half of the 20th century. “We’re still, thankfully, far away from that,” said Kapustin. To take just one example, the final per-100,000 homicide rate for 2020 will likely be significantly higher than 2019’s, which was 5.8, but it will still be well below the equivalent figures for 1970 or 1980 (8.8 and 10.4, respectively). As long as it is a short-term rise, rather than a sustained one, we will remain under those historical levels.

In addition to the sheer magnitude of the increase, part of what made 2020 so noteworthy was a split between violent crime and other types, such as property, that researchers weren’t expecting — just about every sort of crime other than gun homicides went down. “Seeing the sort of divergence in patterns between gun violence specifically going up and lots of other crimes, including property crimes and others, going down is very unusual,” said Roseanna Ander, founding executive director of the UChicago Crime Lab and Education Lab. Given that most of the year took place under lockdowns of varying severity, one might have thought the murder rate would have fallen alongside everything else, said Kapustin. “You might think, ‘Oh, maybe there will be fewer opportunities for gun violence to happen.’” Instead, the opposite happened. The pandemic “disrupted a whole host of institutions that act as a first line against gun violence,” he said.

A major reason for this might simply be that gun violence is a bit more complicated than various other crimes. Vandalism and theft are often more random and more likely to occur simply as a result of people being out and about. That’s not to say there aren’t random shootings, because of course there are, but in many ways gun violence is different from less serious types of crimes and requires unique countermeasures — countermeasures that were directly disrupted by the pandemic. “Everything that we do as a society to reduce gun violence has just been completely disrupted due to COVID,” said Kapustin. As Ander put it, these effects manifested themselves the most in “neighborhoods that, even on a good day before the pandemic, were under tremendous stress. You just had enormous fuel for that fire, and fewer resources, and fewer outlets, and fewer supports.”

The impact of the coronavirus on police behavior alone might explain part of the rise in violent crime. In many cities around the country, the pandemic has both thinned the ranks of on-duty police and forced those who remain healthy to take an approach that entails fewer of the friendly (or at least neutral) interactions with citizens that mark good community policing. “Even the ones who aren’t out sick, they’re keeping their distance and pulling back in a variety of ways,” said Kapustin.

And on the social-services side, “everything from schools, libraries, mentors, social workers — all that’s been disrupted.” That, of course, includes groups whose entire purpose is to help disrupt shootings and cycles of retaliation in response to them. Think about the myriad subtle and not-so-subtle ways after-school programs or sports leagues or dedicated programs help prevent violence among young men — the most at-risk group — in poor neighborhoods. Then think about what happens when, in one horrible poof, all those programs shutter.

So while it’s understandable that political leaders have focused most intently on the well-being of the over-65 population during the COVID pandemic, young people have been enduring less readily apparent health threats from the crisis — including some neighborhoods becoming much, much more dangerous. “[Among] young people who are at much higher risk for gun violence, for example, there’s been a huge economic and mental-health toll throughout the pandemic,” said Kapustin. He said there were segments of the 18-to-24-year-old population, for example, who are experiencing Depression-era levels of unemployment, as well as off-the-charts levels of suicidal ideation and other mental-health problems. “These are horrific numbers.”

Skyrocketing tension between communities and law enforcement following the killing of George Floyd sparked a second crisis atop the first. “You have this once-in-a-century pandemic and then all of these other strains to the system that are because of COVID or because of the pandemic,” said Ander, “and then you have the increased cynicism or distrust of police and the criminal-justice system at the same time. You’d be hard-pressed to imagine a more challenging set of circumstances for cities to face.”

Ander explained that while the pandemic forced beat cops into a more hands-off approach to their work, the protests raised the question of whether, and to what extent, communities want police heavily involved in day-to-day life in high-crime neighborhoods in the first place. The skepticism comes from an understandable place, given the extent to which “engaged” policing has come to be seen as synonymous with “abusive” policing. “Unfortunately, the measures we have for proactive policing are things like street stops,” she said. “But there are other forms of proactive policing that I think are important but not well measured, like police engaging with residents, getting out of their cars, talking to business owners, and really being engaged. And I think what we’ve seen is a reduction in all proactive policing, both the kind we can measure and the kind that is not well measured, and that is probably having an impact on what we’re seeing in terms of community trust in police, but also police effectiveness.”

While Ander said she was skeptical of the most straightforward accounts of police disengagement sometimes offered by (primarily) conservatives — some version of police saying, Well, if they don’t want us in their neighborhoods, I guess we’ll just stop trying to clear cases — she was open to the idea of a more complicated back-and-forth where police and civilian behavior reinforce one another in negative ways. For example, imagine a neighborhood where police disengage a bit owing to protests and COVID. The residents see fewer cops out and about — now they’re just faceless authority figures cocooned in their cruisers, in turn making the community less forthcoming with law enforcement. Less information from the community makes police even less engaged, further fueling distrust, and so on. “You get into this vicious cycle or this really negative equilibrium,” said Ander. All of which could easily lead to more violent crime.

Ander counseled subtlety when it comes to the discussion over police defunding. “In the neighborhoods facing the greatest burdens of both gun violence and the harms of the criminal-justice system, the residents that I have spoken to over the years have a far more nuanced view of things,” she said. “Certainly not a monolithic view. They want their problems addressed. They want their government to work for them. What I hear more often than anything is they want their fair share of resources — including police resources — but they want the police to treat them with the dignity, fairness, and respect they deserve. But even that is anecdotal. I hope policy-makers and opinion leaders can create more avenues for the voices of the residents for whom these decisions will be most consequential to be heard — and acted on.”

None of these observations point to easy answers. And both Ander and Kapustin expressed worry that policy-makers and others are going to conclude, understandably but wrongly, that as soon as the pandemic ends, America’s recent violent-crime concerns will abate, too. “You can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic with the rollout of the vaccines,” said Ander. “It’s not clear what’s going to reverse that increase in gun violence.”

America Saw a Historic Rise in Murders in 2020. Why?