Last year the US saw the highest increase in the homicide rate in decades. The total estimated homicides rose to levels not seen since the late 1990s, although the overall crime rate fell. So far, the surge has continued through 2021, with the number of murders up nearly 15 percent this year compared to the same period last year, based on data from US cities collected by crime analyst Jeff Asher.
We know this. What we don't really know yet is why.
The increase in murders and the increase in shootings is reflected not only in statistics, but also in real events. Over the weekend, the sound of gunshots panicked baseball players and fans at Nationals Stadium in Washington, DC. The night before, the DC Mayor condemned a drive-by shootout that killed a 6-year-old. In the meantime, a total of 12 coast-to-coast mass shootings resulted in 11 dead and 49 injured in the USA.
Crime and violence can fluctuate from year to year. But the size of the Mordspitze has drawn wider national attention. The surge is now part of an ideological proxy war – leading to conflicting opinions even within political parties about what to do about the rise in murders, and plenty of clues as to whether the pandemic, police protests, or guns were to blame.
We don't know for sure what's behind the climb. All three factors likely played a role. And there may even be some unknown factor that researchers won't notice for years; The theory that higher levels of lead in the environment led to more crime and violence in the 1960s to 1990s took decades to attract widespread national attention.
"There are a number of things that make it extremely difficult to come up with a particular explanation," said Morgan Williams, an economist at Barnard College who studies crime and criminal justice.
The rise in homicides seems to be a uniquely American phenomenon. While homicide rates have risen in some developed countries like Canada and Germany over the past year, the increases are well below the double-digit peaks America has seen. This is especially noteworthy because the United States already had a higher base of murders after controlling the population. Despite claims that Democratic mayors or progressive criminal justice policies are driving the surge, the relevant political party also seems indifferent: As Asher and criminal justice expert John Pfaff have shown, murder rates in cities, by Democrats and Republicans, progressives and Not.
The good news is that there is much more consensus among experts about how to contain the surge than about what caused it. But the best evidence suggests that ending murders in the short term will require more and better, if not necessarily more aggressive, policing – a controversial proposition from the left.
"I know people don't want to hear that, and I understand that," Anna Harvey, a public safety expert at New York University, told me. "But in terms of research at least, the evidence of short-term responses to the rise in homicides is strongest for the police-based solutions."
The stakes are very high. According to preliminary data, nearly 21,000 people were murdered in America in 2020. Another increase of 10 percent or more could mean thousands more deaths in 2021.
The murder spike is real
The United States saw a huge surge in murders and other crimes from the 1970s to 1990s. But from the mid-1990s the country experienced a peaceful phase: By 2014, murder, violence and other crime rates had fallen by more than half. The murder rate rose in 2015 and 2016, but quickly leveled off and then fell again.
Then, in 2020, the murders rose an estimated 25 percent. As Princeton sociologist Pat Sharkey told me earlier: "The last year was clearly the most violent year of the (21st) century so far."
The dates are preliminary; The final official numbers for 2020 will be released later this year. However, the findings were supported by multiple sources including the FBI, Asher, separate reports from the Criminal Justice Council, and the City Crime Stats website operated by the University of Pennsylvania.
A consistent finding from these analyzes: the increase is truly national and shows up in every region of the country and in most cities with available data.
Following those early data, several other types of crime also increased, including shootings, aggravated assaults, and car thefts. Nonetheless, violent crime in general increased much less, if at all, compared to homicides, and overall crime decreased, partly due to a decrease in the majority of property crimes.
The division between homicide rates and crime rates may seem strange, but there are good reasons to believe that the divergence is real and not an artifact of underreporting. There have been fewer property crimes over the past year as shops have been closed and people have stayed at home. The one type of property crime that has increased, car theft, is often committed as part of a larger, more serious crime. Criminologists call this a “keystone crime”: the theft of a car, for example for a drive-by shoot-out, so that the perpetrators cannot be easily identified.
Based on Asher's analysis of major U.S. cities, the rise in homicides has continued, but likely slowed, through 2021. There also seems to be more variation: more cities, including Chicago, are reporting a decrease, or at least no increase, in homicides so far this year. "It's gotten a little more focused," said Sharkey.
A flattening in homicide rates is better than a steady rise, but it's not great. It means that this century people are still being killed at the highest level. Still, this could suggest that the surge is more of a brief divergence than the start of a new trend – a repetition of the 2015-2016 surge.
We still don't know the causes
Most likely to a consensus that I was able to find in discussions with experts about the cause of the rise in murder: It's complicated.
Experts have discarded some options. Given that killings have risen in both Democratic and Republican-run cities, as well as in places that have and have not introduced criminal law reforms, partisanship and criminal law reforms don't seem to be the cause.
Three plausible explanations, none of which exclude the other, have come up again and again:
1) The Covid-19 pandemic: The coronavirus was a massive force in 2020 and may have affected homicide rates as well. The pandemic has halted programs likely to protect Americans from violence, including police, social services, and community-led efforts. Some people, especially teenagers and young men, had more free time to stew interpersonal conflicts as workplaces and schools were closed. And it fed a general feeling of chaos and despair throughout the year, and perhaps heightened the perception that desperate times can call for desperate action.
But much of the world has also struggled with Covid-19, from Mexico to Canada to much of Europe, and didn't see a double-digit increase in murders over the past year. This suggests that the virus may not be the only cause.
2) The US Protests Against Police Brutality: Beginning with the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, protests against black men and boys killed by police – Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and others – swept through cities, followed by a surge in homicides and sometimes other violence. Several sides in the ensuing debate claimed a "Ferguson effect", although little empirical research has been done on the subject.
One theory suggested that officials who feared being caught the next viral moment leading to protests withdrew from proactive police. On the flip side, the public may have lost confidence in the police and less likely to cooperate as witnesses or informants, making it harder to close cases, make arrests and get dangerous people off the streets. A greater feeling that the criminal justice system cannot be trusted could also have resulted in people taking matters into their own hands by force.
The same could have led to a spike in 2020-2021 following the mass protests against the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “It's kind of like the conversation we had five or six years ago,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri St. Louis, told me.
3) America's gun problem: The United States has most of the guns in civilian hands, and the number of firearms bought by Americans has increased dramatically over the past year. The research here is clear: More guns mean more gun violence – and more deadly violence, because the presence of a gun can escalate virtually any conflict, from public disputes to domestic violence.
A recent study found that the number of gun purchases in a state does not correlate with increased gun violence. But the data in this study ended in July 2020, before much of the country saw the largest surge in homicides.
Even if new gun purchases weren't to blame, it is possible that guns already existed: Asher found evidence that more people carried guns in the past year, leading to more police officers finding guns in an arrest. So maybe it's not so much because people bought new firearms, but because they started carrying the arsenal of guns they already had.
Perhaps the best explanation: all of these factors played a role.
There are many ways that all of these explanations could have interacted with one another. As an example: Covid-19 and protests both fueled the feeling that the social fabric was disintegrating and that more people – especially in the worst-off neighborhoods – felt they had to take care of themselves. They armed themselves to act when they felt threatened. And this made it more likely that any conflict would escalate into deadly violence.
Ultimately, however, there are too many unknowns to draw hard conclusions.
We know the solutions
Despite the lack of clarity about what caused the rise in violence, there are plenty of indications of solutions that could contain the trend – whatever the cause may be.
The best research on crime and violence control quickly shows that the police have a role to play. This need not go hand in hand with punitive practices like stop-and-frisk and arrests for minor offenses, which have drawn the wrath of protesters over the years. (In fact, the experts I spoke to realized it shouldn't.) But there is strong evidence that more police leads to fewer murders, and solid research supports strategies like hotspots and problem-oriented police.
These strategies are usually more focused, such as the increased surveillance of very specific blocks with high crime rates by the hotspot police. Or, rather, they're planned: Problem-based policing requires formal assessments of a problem and solutions, and calls for the involvement of community partners to ensure that the problem is addressed from the root. It's a move away from trawling efforts, where officials target entire neighborhoods to stop or arrest as many people as possible.
In fact, these approaches can reduce incarceration overall. For example, evidence from hotspot policing suggests that the mere presence of officials deterred crime, as people are less likely to do illegal things in front of a police officer. The police don't have to do anything – just stop and watch. And fewer crimes committed mean fewer arrests.
"It's not like you're getting more cops out on the streets and making a series of arrests," Harvey said. "There are cheaper ways to fight violent crime that are more effective and don't have the side effects that some of the other strategies cause."
Earlier this year, President Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress approved an economic aid package that includes funding for local and state governments to recruit more cops for the "community police". One challenge for progressive politicians, however, is that many of them wanted to withdraw from dependence on the police or to cut resources for the departments altogether.
Some alternatives to policing, such as community-based violence interrupters, have not worked well. "Violence Interrupt" programs, in which parishioners intervene to prevent a conflict from escalating, have received praise, a documentary, and now federal funding from the Biden administration – but the evidence for this approach is weak and mixed.
Other alternatives have done better. There is good evidence of providing summer job programs, increasing the age of early school leavers, greening vacant lots, installing more street lights, providing more drug addiction, introducing better gun control, and increasing alcohol taxes.
The problem, experts told me, is that even the most effective strategies without the police tend to work. The police can be active on a high-crime block in minutes, but it can take years to straighten people and neighborhoods economically and otherwise, and to tackle the root causes of the crime that these alternatives are designed to target. They are not all designed to quickly reduce the number of murders.
"That doesn't mean the police are a panacea for these things," Williams said. "But it does mean that we should be very careful with interventions that we don't know have important benefits or costs."