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We don’t know why violent crime is up. But we know there’s more than one cause.

Simple explanations for the surge are too pat — whatever they are

Police investigate the scene of a shooting in Brooklyn last month. Violent crime has been up in cities around the nation.
Police investigate the scene of a shooting in Brooklyn last month. Violent crime has been up in cities around the nation. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The United States saw about 25 percent more homicides in 2020 than in 2019, based on preliminary data released by the FBI — the largest single-year increase in the homicide rate since reliable tracking began in 1960. The current rate — 6.2 homicides per 100,000 residents, if the same 25 percent increase is applied to last year’s rate — is the highest recorded in the United States in more than 20 years. In America’s largest cities and, in particular, the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods within those cities, the rise in violence has been the most pronounced.

The reasons for the large increase in violence are a matter of speculation and are likely to remain poorly understood for years to come. During the coronavirus pandemic, a number of factors changed simultaneously in American cities, making it difficult to isolate the precise combination of ingredients behind the surge in violence. But we do have enough data to judge the strengths and weaknesses of some competing theories.

The U.S. homicide rate was rising, albeit slowly and without much media attention, before the pandemic. From 2014 to 2019, the rate increased by 13 percent, reversing a long decline of 54 percent that had begun in 1991. The rapid growth in homicides during the pandemic appears to have sped up that increase.

The question is, why?

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One set of explanations has to do with the economic hardship, social disruptions and uncertainty that the pandemic has caused, especially for communities already strained by poverty and structural disadvantage. But there is little evidence that violence increases markedly during economic downturns: Murders declined during deep recessions in 1980-1982 and 2008-2010. While the economy has been a significant stressor for millions of Americans who have found themselves out of work, lethal violence is largely driven by the actions of a small number of men who are only tenuously tied to formal labor markets — and not immediately affected by job cutbacks.

Social disruptions that change patterns of human activity and social control provide a more promising explanation. When community institutions are weakened, people feel they’re on their own and may respond to uncertainty by assuming the worst, carrying weapons and reacting to aggression with even greater aggression. This theory is buoyed by recent analyses of police searches, which show that starting in March 2020, authorities found more firearms during street and traffic stops. The data suggests what many police officers have been saying based on their personal experiences: More people are carrying guns than before.

I’m a cop. I won’t fight a ‘war’ on crime the way I fought the war on terror.

But the problem with these explanations is that unlike the coronavirus, the jump in lethal violence has been a uniquely American phenomenon. As Zaid Jilani notes, homicides did not rise in Western Europe in 2020, nor did they increase in our two closest neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Even in El Salvador, one of the most violent and lawless countries in the world, there is no indication that homicides have spiked. American exceptionalism does not mean the challenges of the pandemic have little to do with the rise in violence — but it does indicate that this is, at best, an incomplete explanation.

Lethal violence didn’t rise immediately after the coronavirus reached our shores and governors imposed lockdowns. Overall crime appeared to drop in many cities as businesses closed, people stayed home and routine social activities were disrupted. But unlike street crimes such as robbery and retail theft, homicides didn’t decline, suggesting that activities among the young men most prone to committing homicide weren’t affected as much by lockdowns.

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In June 2020, not long after the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests, shootings and homicide rates began to climb nationwide. The close connection between the rise in violence and the groundswell of public outrage at law enforcement last summer makes it natural to wonder whether the increase in violence can be explained by a decline in funding for police departments, a reduction in police morale or a fraying of police-community relations rather than the pandemic.

One popular narrative has it that cuts to police funding have contributed to the growth in homicide rates. There is a great deal of scientific evidence that when cities hire more police officers, violence tends to decline, and that when high-crime blocks are subject to greater police presence, crime falls in those areas. But while there is some evidence that the pandemic challenged departments and there were fewer officers on the streets in some places, most cities maintained their required levels of patrol in 2020.

Was public safety decimated by the “defund the police” movement? Despite the intense media coverage of the idea, only a handful of cities actually cut police budgets substantially. Some of these cities — such as Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Seattle — experienced an explosion in shootings, but the rise in homicide has been broad-based and also affected cities that didn’t change police funding levels, including Detroit, Phoenix and Omaha. A reasonable argument can be made that the movement to defund the police created greater discontent among officers, but reductions in police funding don’t seem to explain the violence.

Protests focus on over-policing. But under-policing is also deadly.

Some have hypothesized that the rise in homicide rates is specifically a result of the June 2020 protests — that the demonstrations emboldened offenders and fractured already tenuous ties between officers and the communities they serve. This seems like a simple way to explain why the United States has seen violence increase so much more than other nations have. But theories about the role of the protests must contend with several challenges. Violence typically climbs during the summer, and in 2020, that happened to correspond not only with the protests but also with an end to the most intensive lockdowns in many cities — making it hard to pin blame on any one cause without more examination. And the rise in gun seizures by law enforcement — which proponents of the theory say is a marker of gun-carrying by emboldened criminals — appears to have begun in March 2020, long before anyone had heard of George Floyd or Derek Chauvin. In other words, the groundwork for the surge in gun violence was laid well before the protests.

A more nuanced hypothesis is that violence increased because police “pulled back” and took fewer proactive measures, a trend that coincides with the beginning of the pandemic and predates the protests. While some of this pullback and the resulting reduction in arrests can be explained by lockdowns, which kept fewer people from venturing outdoors, there is anecdotal evidence that police, both officially and unofficially, wanted to minimize unnecessary contact with the public during a global health crisis.

But do reductions in proactive policing lead to more crime and violence? High-quality evidence on the public-safety value of low-level “quality of life” arrests is surprisingly thin. When police have engaged in intentional work slowdowns in the past, increases in crime have not always followed. At the same time, recent research suggests that federal and state investigations of local police agencies after incidents that attract widespread attention are followed by de-policing and a rise in homicide rates.

While the “protests caused the violence” narrative appears far too simple, it is difficult to reject the hypothesis that less-inspired policing — whether prompted by public health concerns, reduced output from dedicated anti-crime units or lower morale after the summer protests — may have played a role. As the Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey has noted, even if the protests did not directly cause the rise in violence, the sudden absence of police from spaces that had been policed intensively may have created an opening for violence to accelerate after the increase in gun carrying during the spring of 2020.

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Whether the criminal justice system’s response to the pandemic affected crime is also unclear. Beginning in March 2020, prosecutors, judges and corrections officials in most cities moved to send fewer defendants to jail while cases were pending and to reduce jail populations as much as possible. This wasn’t part of a progressive political agenda — it was a reaction to the fear that covid-19 would spread like wildfire in jails, endangering not only inmates but also corrections officers and ultimately the wider community.

In many places, the pandemic has also caused criminal courts to slow down considerably. Cases have taken longer to adjudicate, which means longer spells when individuals awaiting charges, including for gun crimes, remain at large. Police officials have pointed to cases in which some of these people ended up involved in shootings, either as perpetrators or as victims. The intense concentration of gun crimes within a low number of social networks and the tendency for violence to become retaliatory mean that even a small change in the efficiency of the criminal justice system could have a large impact on shootings and homicides.

One of the more obvious differences between the United States and most other developed nations is the wide availability of guns. Is gun proliferation to blame for the violence of 2020? While it’s too soon to fully sort this out, we can at least devise a framework for thinking about the role guns play.

There is evidence that gun purchases rose considerably during the pandemic. The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System processed more than 39 million firearm background checks in 2020, a 40 percent increase from the year before. While the vast majority of these newly purchased guns have not been used in crimes, even if a small number end up in communities suffering from endemic violence, the effects could be sizable. Indeed there is compelling evidence that gun proliferation can drive more violence in economically distressed pockets of large cities than in suburban and rural areas.

But gun proliferation isn’t necessarily responsible for last year’s violence. Gun sales rose for years as homicide rates fell. From 2000 to 2014, the FBI processed more than 100 million firearms background checks, while the national homicide rate dropped by 18 percent. The large 2020 increase in background checks represents only a 10 percent rise in the stock of firearms in the United States. And guns used in crime tend to be surprisingly old — at least 10 years old, on average. It is relatively uncommon for newly purchased guns to be used in homicides.

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Ultimately, the evidence doesn’t paint a simple picture of why homicide rates surged in 2020. The rise in violence during the pandemic appears to be a problem that is uniquely American, so broad explanations that emphasize economic strife, social stresses and disruptions to public services are, at best, incomplete. The evidence suggests that gun-carrying increased sharply shortly after pandemic-induced lockdowns began, either because police withdrew from public spaces or because people expected an arms race in communities suffering from endemic violence. The summer protests reignited a long-brewing legitimacy crisis for law enforcement and may have made it more difficult for police to reassert control over spiraling violence and retaliation.

Beneath it all, the ready availability of guns looms. Put simply, social disruptions and de-policing probably have higher stakes in American cities — where a small but persistent number of criminal offenders carry guns — than they do in countries where firearms are not as easy to get.

Twitter: @AaronChalfin

Read more from Outlook:

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Baltimore tried reforming the police. They fought every change.

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