On Twitter, the House Republican Conference posted an image of rising homicide rates in seven cities with this bit of misleading commentary: “Welcome to President Biden’s America.”
Homicides are on the rise, but the increase started last year when Donald Trump was president. According to data compiled by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the number of homicides rose 33% in 66 major cities in 2020 compared with 2019.
The increase has continued largely unabated since Joe Biden took office. In a report issued May 14, the Major Cities Chiefs Association reported a 29% increase in 63 major cities for the first three months of 2021 compared with the same period in 2020.
Experts say there are several factors that may explain the rising number of homicides, but the president is not one of them – regardless of party.
“Who is in the White House has little to no direct connection to what is inherently a state/local crime problem,” John L. Worrall, a criminal justice professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, told us in an email.
What the Homicide Stats Show
In a June 28 tweet, the House Republicans posted a screen grab of a Fox News graphic that showed “Homicides in 2021 compared to 2020” in seven cities. It showed homicides sharply rising in all seven cities.
The Fox News graphic cited the National Fraternal Order of Police as its source, but no date or dates were provided for the homicide data in the graphic or the tweet. The percentage increases in the seven cities, however, match the year-over-year figures from an FOP tweet a month earlier that gave the date of the homicide data as May 25.
We pulled the most recent homicide data available as of July 7 from the police departments of the seven cities listed in the Fox graphic. Six of the seven have seen increases in homicides in 2021 compared with the same period in 2020.
The largest increase on a percentage basis was in Portland, but that is deceiving. Portland also saw a large jump in 2020, but most of the murders occurred in the second half of 2020 — including 31 in the last five months of last year.
A comparison of Portland homicides in the first five months of this year compared with the last five months of 2020 show a more modest 23% increase.
Portland wasn’t the only city to see a large increase in 2020 compared with 2019. All seven cities in the Fox News graphic saw increases, based on data compiled by the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the New York Police Department.
The largest increase was in Portland, where the number of homicides nearly doubled.
The large increases in Portland and Philadelphia last year weren’t anomalies, either.
Homicides increased all four years during the Trump presidency in Philadelphia and Portland; three of four years in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., and New York City; and just one of the four years in Los Angeles and Chicago, both in 2020, the data show.
What’s driving the increase in homicides, and is there enough data to detect a pattern? These were the questions that we put to criminal justice experts.
Is the Rise in Homicides a Trend?
Despite the recent increase in homicides in major cities — and an expected increase nationally — experts say it’s too soon to say whether this is part of a trend.
There were 5.5 such crimes per 100,000 people in 2000, and, after upticks in 2015 and 2016, the rate fell in 2017 and remained steady at 5 per 100,000 in 2018 and 2019, according to the FBI’s most recent annual data.
The FBI won’t publish its 2020 report until September, but incomplete preliminary data indicate that murders rose by at least 25% nationwide last year — which would be the largest annual increase in at least the last 60 years.
In March, the FBI released quarterly data that, although incomplete, showed the number of murders for all of 2020 rose by at least 25%. “That [data] doesn’t include big cities that we know had big rises in murder like New York, Chicago, New Orleans, and a bunch of others that didn’t report, so think of that [25%] as the floor for how much murder rose nationally,” Jeff Asher, a consultant who has served as a crime analyst for the city of New Orleans, tweeted on March 15 in response to the FBI’s preliminary quarterly report released that day. “The final 2020 # will be released in Sep.”
Asher estimated that the FBI data for 2020 will show an increase of between 25% and 30% — which would be consistent with other reports released so far.
As we noted earlier, a survey conducted by the Major Cities Chiefs Association found homicides rose 33% in 66 major cities for all of 2020 compared with 2019.
Similarly, the Council on Criminal Justice released a report on violent crime that found a 30% increase in homicides in 2020 in 34 major cities.
“The magnitude of this increase is deeply troubling, but absolute rates of homicide remain well below historical highs,” the report said. “In 2020, the homicide rate was 11.4 deaths per 100,000 residents in sample cities; 25 years earlier, in 1995, the rate was 19.4 per 100,000 residents.”
In a March update, the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan think tank, found homicide rates in the first three months of 2021 “declined from their peak in the summer of 2020, but remained above levels in the first quarter of prior years.”
Criminologists and criminal justice experts prefer to have several years’ worth of data before determining crime trends. But Richard Rosenfeld, a co-author of the Council on Criminal Justice report, told us in an interview that the data are concerning enough to “require a response.”
“We’ve had one year plus some months of a sharp increase, there’s no question. But one year when you look at crime rates doesn’t make for a trend, so we’re going to have to wait another year or so,” said Rosenfeld, a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “But regardless of whether this increase is the beginning of a longer term trend or not, the increase itself was sharp enough to deserve notice and require a response. So regardless of whether it portends a longer term trend, that one year increase was so large that we need to respond.”
Worrall, of the University of Texas at Dallas, similarly told us in an email: “It is not clear there is a true pattern of increases. Certainly, 2020 and 2021 have been anomalous in a number of respects (Covid, de-policing, etc.).”
What’s Driving the Recent Rise in Homicides?
As alluded to by Worrall, the pandemic is believed to be one reason for the recent rise in homicides.
“I think this is really about the pandemic,” John Roman, a senior fellow in the Economics, Justice and Society Group at NORC at the University of Chicago, told us in an interview.
The increase in homicides occurred “mainly in the same places,” Roman said, under conditions made worse by a pandemic that idled workers and cut off support systems.
In its report, the Council on Criminal Justice similarly said the strain of the pandemic on “at-risk individuals and key institutions … likely contributed to elevated homicide rates in 2020.”
“First, the pandemic has disproportionately affected vulnerable populations, placing at-risk individuals under additional physical, mental, emotional, and financial stress,” the report said. “Secondly, the pandemic has strained the institutions charged with responding to violent offenses, including police agencies, courts, hospitals, emergency medical services, and community-based groups that productively engage at-risk individuals. Most evidence-informed violence reduction efforts depend heavily on proactive outreach to at-risk people and places, and such outreach has been largely curtailed by the ongoing risk of infection.”
In addition to the pandemic, Rosenfeld and Worrall both cited the public protests against the police after the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd by a white police officer.
In an interview, Rosenfeld told us there are two schools of thought about the impact of Floyd’s murder on rising homicide rates.
The first is the notion of “de-policing,” which is the belief that the rise in homicides is due to demoralized police forces that have pulled back from enforcing the laws.
“The first explanation I think is somewhat implausible because it’s arguing that in essence the police pullback generated an increase in homicide and perhaps other violent crime, but not any other crimes,” Rosenfeld told us. “In fact, property crimes, as you probably know, and I guess our reports indicate, have gone way, way down over the last year or so. So if the police are pulling back, you would expect that to happen and to produce an increase in street crimes of all kinds, and that’s not the pattern we see.”
Others argue the community is pulling away from police, resulting in a form of “street justice.” This is known as “de-legitimizing,” Rosenfeld writes in his report.
“Instead of arguing that the police are pulling back from the communities, this argument is the communities are even pulling further back from the police — even less likely than they once were to report crimes to the police, cooperate with the police and investigations,” Rosenfeld said. “All of this goes under the kind of rubric of declining police legitimacy. And as legitimacy declines, the argument is crime rates will go up, street justice begins to take hold as communities become even more alienated from the police.”
Rosenfeld said it is the “same debate” that those in the criminal justice community had “five to six years ago after the Ferguson incident,” when “homicide rates spiked.”
The “Ferguson incident” refers to the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old Black man who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. After Brown’s death, there were relatively sharp increases in the national homicide rate in 2015 and 2016.
An 11.4% increase in the homicide rate in 2015 represented the largest annual percentage increase since 1968. (See our chart above on homicide rates dating to 1960.)
But whether the so-called “Ferguson effect” caused homicides to rise in 2015 and 2016 is still a matter of debate.
“The ‘Ferguson effect’ is one of the more widely discussed, and controversial, explanations for the recent increases in violent crime,” the Congressional Research Service said in a 2018 report. “There is a small but growing body of literature on the Ferguson effect, and the evidence is mixed.”
The CRS report said “studies of the Ferguson effect have generally focused on a single state or specific cities, which make the results of these studies non-generalizable to other jurisdictions.”
Roman doesn’t believe that the current increase in homicides stems from last year’s protests against the police.
“I don’t think that the protests explain very much of what you see in the data,” he said. “In most cities, the protests were short-term events.”
There are several other possible factors that may be contributing to the current rise in homicides, including a rise in gun sales and a reduction in jail populations during the pandemic, the Council on Criminal Justice says in its year-end report.
“For example, some commentators have observed that massive increases in firearm purchases at the outset of the pandemic may have contributed to an increase in homicides and gun crimes. There is some preliminary evidence to support such a conclusion, but more research is required,” the report said. “Other commentators have argued that reductions in jail populations due to the pandemic and, in some places, bail reforms have led to an increase in violence. The evidence for these claims is anecdotal at best.”
Roman said the increase in gun sales during the pandemic was “absolutely a contributor” to the rise in homicides.
“You saw millions of guns purchased since March – more than average — and some of those guns find their way to becoming a crime gun,” he said. “It’s inevitable.”
None of the experts we contacted said the president — any president — is responsible for the rise or fall of local criminal activity, although the Council on Criminal Justice’s year-end report does call on “leaders at all levels of government” to act.
“Subduing the pandemic, increasing confidence in the police and the justice system, and implementing proven anti-violence strategies will be necessary to achieve a durable peace in the nation’s cities,” the report says.
“That can certainly help,” Rosenfeld said of Biden’s gun violence strategy. “But no president, in my memory, has ever single-handedly been responsible for a sharp crime increase or for that matter a sharp crime decline. Crime is driven by other factors and the president has little control over those factors.”
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