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Experts Say The Pandemic Coincided With The Largest One-Year Rise In Homicide Rates

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Crime across the U.S., like so much else in 2020, looked very (inaudible) last year's. Property crime was down, but the murder rate is up. NPR's Cheryl Corley has a look at some of the things that may be driving these changes.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: All throughout the year, an alarming increase in homicides left communities, often in lockdown, reeling as officials searched for answers. That was evident at lots of news conferences, as Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown, Los Angeles Police Captain Ahmad Zarekani and New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio all rolled out dire news.

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DAVID BROWN: There were 11 murders during this time span, and four of those murders were children.

AHMAD ZAREKANI: In the city, we have 261 homicides. That is 25% increase.

BILL DE BLASIO: This uptick in shootings is something that should worry all New Yorkers, and we've got to stop it.

CORLEY: New Orleans-based data consultant Jeff Asher actually studied crime rates in more than 50 cities. He says it's not just happening in big cities.

JEFF ASHER: We're going to see historically the largest one-year rise in murder nationally that we've ever seen.

CORLEY: Asher says it's been more than a half-century since the country saw a year-to-year murder rate that jumped nearly 13% over the previous year. With the number of murders spiking in several cities, he expects more grim numbers.

ASHER: We have good data that the rise in murder was happening in the early stage of the pandemic. We have good data that the rise in murder picked up in the early stages of the summer. And we also have good data that the rise in murder picked up again in September, October as some of the financial assistance started to wear off.

CORLEY: Chicago minister Reverend Marshall Hatch Sr. says the spike in violence is sadly not surprising. His church is located in a neighborhood hard-hit by both poverty and the pandemic.

MARSHALL HATCH: COVID has had a disproportionate impact, and people are increasingly desperate. And people, because of, you know, the concentration of poverty, tend to turn on each other.

CORLEY: Richard Rosenfeld says there may be other factors in addition to pandemic-related economic and mental health issues in play. He is a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the lead author of a new report from the Council on Criminal Justice, which focuses on the pandemic, social unrest and crime following George Floyd's killing. Rosenfeld says there's also been some respite since property crimes took a nosedive as the pandemic began.

RICHARD ROSENFELD: Burglaries were down. Larcenies were down. You know, quarantines kept people at home, and burglars tend to avoid occupied households. When the shops are closed, there's no shoplifting, so larceny is reduced.

CORLEY: Even with gradual reopenings, property crimes in 2020 were still much lower than the previous year, while homicides climbed significantly in 28 cities he studied - places like St. Louis, Kansas City and Milwaukee. Also, the risk of murder in neighborhoods plagued by gun violence was much higher in 2020 than in 2019. Augusta University sociologist Kim Davies says that's where so-called confrontational homicide is often the cause.

KIM DAVIES: It's homicide where two people, mostly men, get into some kind of confrontation over, you know, who's more manly, and nobody backs down. And before you know it, somebody pulls a weapon, and it often ends in violence.

CORLEY: Davies says that's especially true during a time when so many are in flux as the country wrestles both with the pandemic and social unrest. The questions now are whether the big jump in murders is a one-year blip and what might push that back down. Yale University law professor Tracey Meares says the COVID-19 vaccines will be a help since the pandemic has prevented many antiviolence programs from operating.

TRACEY MEARES: It requires a great deal of face-to-face contact, typically, among service providers and the folks who are most likely to both commit these offenses and be the victims of them. And it's a lot harder to do that when people can't meet in person.

CORLEY: Which means some of the very things that have successfully prevented murders just aren't available until the COVID-19 vaccines become more widespread and the added daily stress posed by the virus diminishes.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.