Homicides committed across the United States spiked by nearly 30% last year according to FBI data released this week, and the surge was even more pronounced in Washington, which saw a 46% increase in killings amid the pandemic.
Washington also made up a larger share of the nation’s homicides, with that proportion increasing by 21%.
The number of homicide victims statewide accounted for a fraction of the nearly 18,000 violent deaths reported by law enforcement agencies across the country in 2020, the data shows.
Academics and those in law enforcement circles continue to debate the exact reasons why homicides have increased across the U.S., but the COVID-19 pandemic was clearly a factor: Last year really was a year like no other, with the stressors of the pandemic leading to lost jobs, increased friction in domestic relationships, and likely heightened levels of depression and despair, said University of Washington Law Professor Mary Fan, who is also a core faculty member at the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center.
Others have theorized that 2020’s racial and social-justice reckoning over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and subsequent changes in policing nationwide, coupled with a surge in gun ownership, contributed to the jump in homicides. But Fan said there have been previous periods of social unrest and times when people have rushed out to buy firearms, usually when gun-control measures are being debated, making it difficult to isolate factors that have changed over time.
“It’s hard to generalize with one year because you want to be able to see things longitudinally to be able to really call it a trend. I can see how it could be alarming because it does look like there’s an increase, but our community, the nation, was gripped by major environmental changes and contextual changes during this time,” Fan said.
With so many changes, “it’s hard to compare a pandemic year with pre-pandemic years. They’re even more different than apples and oranges,” she said. “The pandemic is really its own category of unprecedented stress. To put it mildly, right?”
Though the number of homicide victims killed nationally rose by more than 3,200 people in 2020 compared to 2019, the net increase in Washington was 94, with 204 homicides (1.4% of the national total) reported to the FBI in 2019 and 298 (1.7% of the national total) reported last year, the data show.
With an estimated population of 7.7 million, Washington residents make up 2.3% of the national population of roughly 333 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
While the annual data released by the FBI this week gives an overall sense of trends, it also comes with disclaimers: Not all of the country’s law enforcement agencies submit the voluntary crime data to the FBI, which is transitioning from its annual Uniform Crime Report — a national record-keeping system that began in the 1960s — to a new system known as the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).
According to The New York Times, the FBI began publishing quarterly crime updates last year, but this year it did not produce national updates for the first or second quarter because not enough agencies submitted data, likely reflecting struggles among law enforcement agencies nationwide to switch to the new NIBRS system. Though NIBRS is expected to provide more insight into a wider array of crimes at both the local and national level, fewer than 10,000 of more than 18,000 participating agencies submitted data via NIBRS in 2020.
During the transition period between reporting systems and during this current period of elevated shootings and murders, the data is getting worse, not better, The New York Times concluded.
Based on an analysis comparing FBI data for King County to a Seattle Times database compiled with information from police, prosecutors and the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, it appears the FBI numbers likely do not include justifiable homicides or fatal officer-involved shootings.
In King County, Washington’s most populous county, the FBI reported 105 homicides in 15 of 37 cities, not including Bothell, which is bisected by the King-Snohomish county line, or Auburn, where a section of the city is part of Pierce County. Sixty-five of the 105 homicides were committed with firearms, representing a little over 60% of the total and mirroring national trends.
The FBI’s homicide count for King County in 2020 was roughly the same as The Seattle Times’ tally: Including homicides committed in King County’s portions of Auburn and Bothell, the newspaper counted 110 homicides last year, with 74 of them — or 67% — committed with firearms. Additionally, nine people were fatally shot by police last year.
Though national numbers show a slowing of homicide rates so far in 2021, there’s been little change here: As of the end of September 2020, 89 homicides had been committed in King County, according to The Seattle Times’ database. As of early Sunday, when three people were gunned down outside a bar in Des Moines, the count for 2021 stood at 87.
The Seattle Police Department alone investigated 52 homicides in 2020, a 73% increase over the 30 homicides investigated a year earlier, according to department data and numbers reported to the FBI.
In Seattle and other major cities across the country, police departments have pointed to their shrinking forces as one likely contributor to the spike in violent crime. Roughly 300 police officers have retired or resigned from SPD in the past 18 months, offset by about 90 new hires.
“We know from research that shooters and their associates quickly become victims. Stopping shootings stops the cycle of violence,” Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz said during an August news conference. “[If] the department was not in the midst of a staffing crisis, we would have highly visible officers in the neighborhoods suffering this violence.”
Information from Seattle Times’ archives is included in this story.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said homicides increased by 21% in Washington. That number refers to the increase in the proportion of nationwide homicides that took place in Washington. The number of homicides in Washington increased by 46%.