The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Homicides were up last year in some major U.S. cities. Just three cities saw most of the increase.

The aftermath of a police shooting in Baltimore in March. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

The number of homicides spiked in more than a dozen major U.S. cities last year, the increases ranging from relatively small (Las Vegas registered three more killings than it did in 2014) to enormous (Baltimore had its highest number in more than two decades), according to a new analysis of crime data.

But even while Americans are increasingly worried about crime, some of the starkest numbers were clustered around just a handful of places. Three cities — Baltimore, Chicago and Washington — accounted for more than half of the total increase in homicides in the country’s 25 biggest cities last year, according to the analysis, released Wednesday by the Brennan Center for Justice.

The report examined the final numbers for violent crimes and homicides in the country’s largest cities, and it follows similar reports released by the Brennan Center, a law and policy institute in New York. It also echoes those earlier reports — as well as criminologists — in concluding that, even amid some headline-grabbing spikes in bloodshed, crime rates continue to be lower and urban areas safer than they have been in recent decades.

Chicago’s staggering increase in gun violence and killings

In Baltimore, the number of killings reached 344 last year, up from 211 a year earlier, the report stated. (This was the deadliest year there since 1993, according to the Baltimore Sun.) Washington had 162 homicides, up from 105 the year before, while Chicago reported 465 homicides, compared with 411 the previous year.

“While this suggests cause for concern in some cities, murder rates vary widely from year to year, and there is little evidence of a national coming wave in violent crime,” the report stated. “These serious increases seem to be localized, rather than part of a national pandemic, suggesting that community conditions remain the major factor.”

The report also looked at crime in these major cities, saying that although two-thirds of the places had a drop in overall crime, they registered a slight increase in violent crime — which, again, was driven by spikes in just three places (Los Angeles, Baltimore and Charlotte). The FBI has said that the number of violent crimes nationwide was slightly up in the first half of last year over the year before, with increases reported in homicides, rapes, assaults and robberies. (The bureau has not released its numbers for the full year yet.) But the Brennan Center report again notes that even with these increases, crime levels remain at historical lows.

“In some cities, murder is up,” the center’s report states. “However, there is not yet sufficient evidence to conclude these levels will persist in the future or are part of a national trend. Although headlines suggesting a coming crime wave make good copy, a look at the available data shows there is no evidence to support that claim.”

Americans still say they are very worried about crime. According to a Gallup poll last month, people in the United States are more concerned about crime than they have been since 2001 — outstripping worries about issues such as terrorism and climate change.

Part of this may have to do with the “headlines suggesting a coming crime wave” that the Brennan Center notes, as heated media coverage could fuel anxiety. Another part of this may simply have to do with how Americans view crime. We tend to always think it is increasing, saying year after year that crime is on the rise, even saying that crime is definitely up during years when it was definitely down.

When we have asked criminologists about increases in crime or violence — either nationally or in specific places — they often respond the same way: Yes, it may be up, but it is so much lower than it used to be. Consider Chicago, a city experiencing staggering levels of bloodshed. The city is on track for more than 500 killings this year, something that has happened only twice in a single calendar year since 2004. The number is high enough to draw national attention. It is also significantly lower than what the city saw just two decades ago: Between 1991 and 1995, Chicago had at least 800 homicides each year, a number it has not approached since.

This year, the number of killings is the same or lower in some of the major cities that had increases in 2015. Homicides increased by 5.7 percent in New York City last year; this year, killings are down nearly 20 percent from the same point in 2015, according to police statistics. Police in Washington reported a 54 percent jump in homicides last year; through Tuesday, the number of killings was the same as it was a year before.

But in some places, the numbers are still going up. Baltimore reported a 16 percent increase in homicides through Saturday over the same date in 2015. Los Angeles registered an 8.8 percent uptick in killings last year. As of last week, the city has had 26 percent more homicides than it did a year earlier. In Chicago, which the Brennan Center said registered more homicides than any other major city last year, the number of killings is up 64 percent this year. That city’s police force is dealing with issues of morale and a federal investigation. Its new police chief, in addition to confronting those issues, has been tasked with fighting bloodshed not seen there for years.

Further reading:

Americans are more worried about crime than they have been since 9/11

What the FBI statistics show about crime during the first half of last year