A new crime reporting system released by the FBI shows that the murder rate in virtually every city in the United States is at its highest levels in more than two decades.
In 2020, the country saw more homicides than in any year since 1998. Experts came to that conclusion after looking at reported quarterly data from roughly 12,000 agencies in various cities and states.
The spike, totaling at over 20,000 recorded homicides, was the largest one-year increase in U.S. history. Every city that reported data saw at least a 20%-25% jump in murders. Twenty-two percent of cities with a population of over 250,000 that reported data saw the most murders ever recorded since the federal government began keeping logs in 1960.
“We’ve never seen an increase like that. Previously the biggest one-year increase in murder was a 12.5% increase in the 1960s,” statistician and crime analyst Jeff Asher told the Washington Examiner. “We’re really talking about unprecedented increases in murder.”
Asher concluded, using the FBI data, that the murder rate for 2020 sat at roughly 6.22 per 100,000 people. Not since 1998 has the country seen a murder rate that high.
In 2019, the murder rate was an even 5 per 100,000 people, a slight dip from 5.1 in 2018.
Some large cities, such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, haven’t submitted all of their homicide data to the FBI yet. Experts say the slow walking by these local governments could mean we won’t have a complete picture until the next few months.
But what we know is that homicides in those cities match the broader trend around in the country based on data given by local law enforcement. In New York, murders rose an estimated 41% in 2020 over the previous year.
“One thing is that this past year was exceptional and that it’s hard to make a claim about general trends in a lot of jurisdictions. In New York City, this trend began before lockdowns,” said Charles Lehman, a fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute who specializes in research on crime and policing. “On the other hand, it’s impossible to dissociate these trends that are associated with protests against the police and city governments defunding their law enforcement. It’s worth noting that the last time we saw these jumps in murder was after the Ferguson protests.”
Far from an outlier, the increase in violence is continuing into the new year as well. According to a sample of 37 cities that have begun reporting data, the country is already seeing an 18% increase in homicides compared to this period in 2020.
Some experts warn not to read too much into the data so far, as the homicide increase correlated directly with the beginning of lockdown policies. It was not until March of last year that cities started strictly regulating public behavior in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Those lockdown policies, some experts surmise, are at least in part responsible for the increase in homicides.
“I don’t have data to draw enough conclusions because it’s early,” Asher said. “[But] I would not be surprised to see an increase in murder through the rest of the year.”
Unless lawmakers and community groups take dramatic action, the violence seen in many urban areas constitutes one of the greatest public health crises facing the country.
Take St. Louis, Missouri, for an example. Last year, the city saw the highest homicide rate in 50 years at 87 killings per 100,000 residents. Asher says that’s one of the highest murder rates ever recorded in a U.S. city.
The startling uptick can be seen in cities larges and small. Chula Vista, California, a city with roughly 270,000 residents, saw 150% more homicides. Over in Sacramento, the state’s capital, homicides increased by 26%. Four of those killed were under the age of 18 — just when the state was celebrating no juvenile murders for two years.
“These spikes in murder are unsurprisingly associated with hostility towards the police and a retreat of police from public life,” Lehman said. “When that happens, unsurprisingly, crime goes up.”
To be clear, murders are far from reaching the levels seen in the mid-to-late 20th century. In 1980, the country saw 10.22 murders per 100,000 people.
Following a brief drop throughout the decade, the murder rate began creeping up in the early 1990s until steadily dropping until last year.
The federal government has remained largely silent on the issue. In September of last year, the Department of Justice released a statement boasting about the country seeing a decline in overall violent crime in 2019.
“While there were significant decreases in the number of rapes and robberies, there was a significant spike in murders and an increase in aggravated assaults,” the press release read.