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"Perfect storm" drove major surge in 2020 homicides, report says

Chicago passes 500 homicides this year
Local matters: Chicago passes 500 homicides this year 08:03

Homicide rates surged nearly 30% across 34 U.S. cities in 2020 from the previous year, a historic year-to-year increase, according to a new study conducted for the Council on Criminal Justice.  A "perfect storm" of possible contributing factors may include societal inequities exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, strains on gun violence intervention programs and a fraught relationship between police and communities, researchers say.

While researchers say the  increase has not upended the overall crime decline seen since violence peaked in the early 1990s, they say it's deeply troubling. 

Police officers and detectives enter a crime scene area where a 9-year-old boy was fatally shot, Friday, July 31, 2020, in Chicago.  John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune via AP

The 2020 homicide rate in the cities the researchers studied was 11.4 killings per 100,000 residents, still far less than 1995, when the rate for the same cities was 19.4 per 100,000 people. While still part of a decades-long downward trend, 2020 saw 1,268 more homicides than the previous year in the sample cities — a spike with "no modern precedent," researchers found. The study suggests that the 2020 national homicide rate will likely well exceed the previous largest year-to-year-increase of 13% in 1968, researchers say, but they caution official counts have not yet been released by the federal government. 

The report found that homicides rose in 29 of 34 cities studied, and some cities saw increases well above 30%. Larger cities drove the increase in murders — New York saw an additional 131 homicides from the previous year, an increase of 43%, and Chicago saw 278 more homicides, a 55% spike. Many smaller cities like Louisville and Milwaukee also saw sharp increases, with 61% and 85% respectively. 

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist and University of Missouri St. Louis emeritus professor who is one of the study's authors, said he was surprised by the size of the increases across so many cities.

"The fact that out of 34 (cities studied), 29 had increases in homicides, that's really very striking," Rosenfeld said.

The findings are cause for serious concern, but not panic, said the study's co-author Thomas Abt, senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and director of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. While more research is needed to determine the extent to which any one factor is driving the spike, the report outlines a series of  hypotheses. They include societal strains related to the coronavirus pandemic and increasing fractures in the relationship between the police and communities exacerbated by police violence including the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

"That's why [Rosenfeld] and I refer to this as a perfect storm — there's a lot of cumulative pressures and strains concerning this problem," Abt said.

Nathan Wallace stands outside of his home holding a button showing his daughter, Natalia Wallace, on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, in Chicago. Natalia, 7, was killed on the west side of Chicago on July 4, 2020. AP Photo/Matt Marton

While murders were significantly higher during each month of 2020 compared to the same month in 2019, the summer months saw the highest violence. Violent crime typically rises each summer as people congregate outside, but the 2020 homicide rate was more than 37% higher in June, July in August than the same months the previous year. Researchers noted the smallest year-to-year rise in homicides in March through May — indicating stay-at-home orders likely suppressed homicide rates to a certain extent — and saw a large, "statistically significant" spike in June, coinciding with the easing of lockdown restrictions.

At the same time, the pandemic was exacerbating societal drivers of gun violence that have for years disproportionately impacted communities of color such as income, housing and health care inequalities and food insecurity. Many police departments struggled as COVID-19 spread through their ranks, possibly affecting efforts to focus on crime "hot spots," Rosenfeld said. And efforts to engage with people most at risk — whether through community policing efforts by law enforcement or civilian outreach workers — were also severely restrained by the pandemic. 

"We know that violence reduction depends on relentless engagement with the highest risk individuals in the highest risk locations," Abt said. "You need to be face to face with these individuals, so when police and other service providers are pulling back over fears of COVID and other things, nobody's engaging with these individuals, and crime can go up."

The work of community-based gun violence intervention workers, sometimes called "violence interrupters," has been deeply impacted by the pandemic, said Michael-Sean Spence, director of community safety initiatives for the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. The outreach workers identify people most at risk of becoming involved in a shooting, connect them with needed social resources and mediate disputes before they turn violent. The tactic has proved successful in curbing violence, but it's largely based on face-to-face outreach that's been impacted by fears of virus transmission. 

Outreach workers themselves have fallen ill or died from COVID-19, Spence said, and many programs are struggling financially as state and local budgets are strained by the pandemic. At the same time, their missions are expanding to include messaging around curbing the virus spread, and social programs the groups rely on to help their clients are cut back or closed, Spence said. 

"Once [the outreach workers] find and engage these individuals, they have to then be able to connect them with ways to access opportunities like job training programs and child care assistance — these programs were drastically diminished," Spence said.

Everytown has called on mayors to prioritize the intervention programs to address the rise in gun violence. The study's authors agree, and also urge continuing efforts to subdue the pandemic and improve police legitimacy by ramping up accountability measures. 

The spike in homicides in June coincided with demonstrations across the country protesting police killings of Black men and women. Researchers emphasize there is no evidence linking the homicide increases to the protesters themselves, but point to two possible theories for why violence might increase in the wake of a highly-publicized police violence incident that have been studied since the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

One theory has to do with "delegitimization" of police, Abt said. A highly publicized incident of police violence "can activate collective memories of historical trauma from past abuses at the hands of authorities for communities that have been systematically disadvantaged and disenfranchised," Abt said.

"When you activate that collective memory and trauma, not surprisingly, some in the community are going to withdraw from law enforcement, not trusting or engaging with them," Abt said.  

When communities don't trust police to do their job in a fair and unbiased manner, they might be less inclined to help in crime solving or even take justice into their own hands when disputes arise, the report says.

Another theory known as "de-policing" suggests a pullback in proactive policing "by officers who fear they will be unfairly scrutinized and could lose their jobs," the report says.

"When you have a sudden, unplanned drawback in policing activity, crime rates and particularly violent crime rates can increase," Abt said.

The report stresses it remains unclear how much either theory may contribute to a spike in homicides. It also references other possible contributing factors, such as a massive increase in gun purchases in 2020, but says more research is required.

Both Abt and Rosenfeld urged lawmakers to immediately prioritize measures to stem violence.

"In many cities, it should be priority number one," Rosenfeld said. "When you have on average a 30% increase in homicides — and some cities like Milwaukee, Louisville, Chicago, New York, where the percentage increase is considerably higher — I can't think of a more urgent policy matter than stemming the increase in violence."

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