Murders spiked in 2020 in cities across the United States

Police at the scene of a homicide in Manhattan on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. The United States experienced its biggest one-year increase on record in murders in 2020, according to new figures released Monday, Sept 27, 2021, by the FBI, with some cities hitting record highs. (John Taggart/The New York Times)
The United States experienced its biggest one-year increase on record in murders in 2020, according to new figures released Monday by the FBI, with some cities hitting record highs.

Although major crimes were down overall, an additional 4,901 murders were committed in 2020 compared with the year before, the largest leap since national records started in 1960. The significant rise in homicides has roughly coincided with the 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The high murder rate has continued into 2021, although the pace has slowed as the year has progressed.

Overall, the toll of about 21, 500 people killed last year is still well below the record set during the violence of the early 1990s. Still, several cities — including Albuquerque, New Mexico; Memphis, Tennessee; Milwaukee; and Des Moines, Iowa — are recording their highest murder numbers ever, according to the report.

There is no simple explanation for the steep rise. A number of key factors are driving the violence, including the economic and social toll taken by the pandemic and a sharp increase in gun purchases.

“It is a perfect storm,” said Chief Harold Medina of the Albuquerque Police Department. He cited COVID, the fallout from social justice protests and bail-reform efforts that in some cities saw more incarcerated people released back onto the streets. “There is not just one factor that we can point at to say why we are where we are,” he said.

The report from the FBI, which tabulates crime numbers reported by almost 16,000 law enforcement agencies across the country, also showed that murders were more widespread, occurring in all regions of the United States and not limited to major cities.

Overall, the statistics indicated that the use of guns has become far more prevalent, with nonfatal shootings rising as well. About 77 percent of reported murders in 2020 were committed with a firearm, the highest share ever reported, up from 67% a decade ago, said Jeff Asher, a crime analyst based in New Orleans. Gun sales spiked during the pandemic, although experts noted that it often takes years for legal gun sales to filter into the illegal market for guns that plague cities such as Chicago.

The wider geographic distribution differs from past decades, said Asher. In 1990, New York City and Los Angeles accounted for 13.8 percent of US murders, compared with 3.8% in 2020, he said.

Murders so far this year rose about 10 percent from 2020 in 87 cities whose current numbers are available, Asher said. The FBI reports statistics for the previous year annually in September, so 2021 figures are not yet fully available this year.

The pandemic undoubtedly played a significant role, causing economic and mental stress, forcing people together for longer periods and creating a climate of uncertainty and unease. Millions of Americans lost their jobs, businesses and in some cases their housing because of the pandemic. The widespread sense of desperation helped to fuel social friction and crime. Many Americans also experienced the trauma of losing loved ones.

“People are desperate and they don’t have a lot of options, so they turn toward violence as a way to solve things,” said Enrique Cardiel, a community organizer and public health worker in the Albuquerque neighborhood with the highest number of murders in the city.

The pandemic also meant that police departments sometimes struggled with the number of officers under quarantine, while the pandemic curbed public services such as mental health counseling and simultaneously aggravated related problems such as homelessness.

“This is a country where everybody is suffering a little post-COVID traumatic syndrome, and not knowing what is going to happen,” said Peter Winograd, a professor at the University of New Mexico who works as a consultant for the Albuquerque Police Department. “That is huge.”

The report also breaks down the murder victims by race, ethnicity and sex, with 9,913 Black people killed in 2020, 7,029 white people, 497 from other races and 315 of unknown race. There were 14,146 men killed and 3,573 women.

While various medium-sized cities were rocked by a record number of homicides, certain major cities, while still enduring high murder rates, were well down from their worst years.

New York City, for example, experienced about 500 murders in 2020, compared with 319 in 2019, but both figures were far below the city’s worst year, 1990, when there were more than 2,200. Chicago had 771 murders last year, compared with about 500 in 2019 and 939 in 1992, one of the city’s most violent years. There were 351 murders last year in Los Angeles, compared with 258 in 2019; its record is 1,010 murders in 1980.

The protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd were also an important factor, although experts differ about why. Some argue that the police, under intense scrutiny and demoralized, pulled back from some aspects of crime prevention. Others put the emphasis on the public, suggesting that diminished respect for the police prompted more people to try to take the law into their own hands.

“The distrust of police, the low morale among police, the fact that the police are being less proactive because they are legitimately worried about being backed up by their superiors” were contributing factors, according to Winograd.

Law enforcement officers also cited what they called the revolving jailhouse door created by bail reform as a factor driving up violence, although critics of that hypothesis noted that violent crime also increased in places where those changes have not occurred.

Other factors are more constant. The combination of drugs, money and guns, for example, has long provided a fuse for violent deaths among young men.

“A lot of it really does go back to people stressed by poverty and mental health issues and by drug addiction, and resolving a lot of these disputes by firearms,” said Liz Thomson, who used to supervise homicide investigations for the Albuquerque Police Department.

Even before the pandemic, people seemed more prickly, with minor disputes escalating into violent confrontations that ended in murder, law enforcement and other analysts noted. That tendency only deepened during the pandemic, they said, with perceived personal insults among the most common motivations for murder.

There have been two murders this year in Haskell, Oklahoma (population 2,000), the kind of small town that did not used to appear on the murder map. One man was stabbed to death in an argument over money, and a young woman was shot dead in a car.

“It is not something that we typically run into,” Haskell Police Chief Michael Keene said of the eight-officer department.

Robberies were another common reason. And although domestic-violence killings dropped slightly from recent years, they were still a factor.

In late May, the police in southwest Albuquerque were dispatched to an imitation adobe home to discover that Lee Marco Cuellar had murdered his wife during an argument, strangling her to death with a sleeveless white T-shirt.

Cuellar, 41, an ROTC instructor at a local middle school, told the officers that after dinner with his wife — Rosalejandra Cisneros-Cuellar, 26, known as Ally — he became convinced that she was a demon who would hurt his family, so he had to kill her, according to the criminal complaint.

Murders tend to have the most devastating impact of all crimes, and to attract the most attention, but they actually constitute a small percentage of major crimes, a classification that includes rape, armed assault, robbery and car thefts.

Given that people were staying at home far more during the pandemic, some categories such as burglaries dropped in 2020, the FBI numbers show. Major crimes overall dropped about 5 percent. The downward trend in overall crime started for years before the pandemic.

With murders still elevated in 2021, but slowing, it is difficult to predict how long the current wave of violent crime might endure. Crime patterns tend to be cyclical in nature.

The FBI data shows that the gun violence driving much of the surge is concentrated among a relatively small number of people within communities where retaliatory shootings are more common. The pandemic curbed both the community outreach programs and the policing that helped to keep murders and other violent crime in check.

“It is those people and places, the pandemic’s impact on those people that matters most,” said Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice. “For the men who are at the highest risk of violence, living in poor communities of color, typically, they were already under pressure, they were already under strain, they were already marginalised and isolated, and the pandemic exacerbated that significantly.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company