The national numbers for murder and other types of violent crime rarely move in opposite directions.
But this is no ordinary year.
Overall crime is down 5.3% in 25 large American cities relative to the same period in 2019, with violent crime down 2%.
But murder in these 25 cities is up 16.1% in relation to last year. It’s not just a handful of cities driving this change, either. Property crime is down in 18 of the 25 sampled cities, and violent crime is down in 11 of them, but murder is up in 20 of the cities.
The FBI doesn’t supply recent crime statistics, so we collected Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data for these cities (each with over 250,000 people), which reported data at least through the end of May. Crime in the report is divided into violent crime — murder, aggravated assault, rape and robbery — and property crime, composed of theft, auto theft and burglary.
Homicides usually rise in the summer, which coincided this year with many people emerging from pandemic lockdown. In one recent weekend in Chicago, 14 people were killed and at least 106 people were shot, the most in eight years. And as The New York Times reported recently: “It has been nearly a quarter century since New York City experienced as much gun violence in the month of June as it has seen this year.” (On Sunday night, the city reportedly had nine killings in the previous 24 hours.)
An additional 17 cities provide year-to-date murder data. Murder is up 21.8% in all 36 cities with 2020 data through at least May, with 29 of those cities seeing an increase this year relative to last year.
How often do murder and other types of violent crime move in opposite directions? There have been only four years since 1960 (1993, 2000, 2002 and 2003) when murder increased but overall violent crime decreased nationally, and the increase in murder was small in each of those years. The average absolute difference between the national change in murder and violent crime since 1990 has been just 2.2%, so a big increase in murder nationally while violent crime falls is almost unheard of.
But this year has been distinct in many ways, because of the pandemic and because of the protests and civil unrest after the death of George Floyd in police custody.
Jerry Ratcliffe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University and host of the Reducing Crime podcast, has cautioned against comparing crime figures in one year with the previous year. This year’s upheaval may be even more reason to be cautious.
Identifying the trend in murder statistics is relatively easy. Understanding why it is happening and what can be done about it is much harder.
Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, points to increased domestic violence as one possible cause of the increase in murder. “The first explanation that I have is that this comes from people being locked inside (during quarantines) and a lack of social services,” he said. “All those things are things that we would expect to lead to higher rates of violence. That’s speculation, though. I have no evidence that that’s the right thing other than the rise in calls for domestic violence.”
Ratcliffe agrees that increased domestic violence may be playing a role. He also hypothesizes that “COVID-19 could have reduced the market and opportunities for recreational drug use/dealing, which puts stress on the drug markets and increases violence.”
“If that is one of the causes, then we might see those tensions ease as lockdowns are relieved,” he said.Jennifer Doleac, associate professor of economics and director of the Justice Tech Lab at Texas A&M, said: “People are worried about increasing domestic violence, and that could certainly lead to increases in homicide. Any kind of crime where most of it is between strangers or requires people being out and about would be down, and homicide is usually between people who know each other, so it might be affected differently.”It’s plausible that the increase in murder this year might reflect a trend that began before the pandemic got underway. A review of the percent change in murder in 10 cities before coronavirus struck (generally defined as through February or March) and those cities’ most recent June update for the year so far shows a worse year-to-date percent change in eight of them, suggesting that the trend may have accelerated over the last few months.
Although the FBI reports murder clearance data, that reporting is slow and often incomplete. Nearly 40% of the cases of murder in 2018 had an unknown cause, according to FBI data, and an implausibly low 131 murders were formally classified as domestic violence. This stands in sharp contrast to an analysis by the Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox that there were more than 2,200 intimate partner murders nationwide in 2017.
Some research suggests that a loss of trust in law enforcement can cause citizens to be reluctant to contact the police, and people may be more likely to take justice into their own hands to resolve disputes.
It’s important to keep the rise in historical perspective. Murder in New York was up 25% compared with last year as of June 14, but that total was the same one the city had in 2015. Murder is up 22% in Chicago, but it’s down 6% from where it was at this time in 2017. Murder is up 42% in New Orleans, but a year ago murder was its lowest point there in almost half a century.
“These numbers do not tell a story that supports any ideological side of the debate around policing,” Goff said. “What it supports at most is a need for rigorous curiosity about a vital issue.”
Doleac also says it is too early to draw any firm conclusions: “This is such a weird year in so many dimensions, and it’s going to take us a while to figure out what caused any of these differences in crime. It is perfectly reasonable to think the first half of this year may not tell us what the rest of the year will look like.”Sampling crime data from dozens of large American cities has proved to be a reasonably accurate way of estimating current crime trends without waiting a year for the FBI data to come out. Doing so this year, however, makes clear how little we know about the drivers of crime in the United States as well as the desperate need for better and more timely data.
“The reality is that we just don’t know” what’s driving the change in murder, Goff said, “and it’s not a straightforward process to figure it out.”