Homicides and other violent crimes spiked last year in major American cities, with New York, Chicago and Los Angeles accounting for 40% of the killings, according to a group charged with assessing COVID-19's effect on the criminal justice system.
The spike in 2020 homicides compared with 2019 was likely the result of a "perfect storm" of factors, including the pandemic and protests over police brutality, according to criminologists who did the study on behalf of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice. The criminologists, from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, studied crime trends in 34 cities.
All but four of the cities saw increases in homicides last year that amounted to an additional 1,268 killings, 30% more than in 2019, according to the study, which was released earlier this week. The increase in homicides is likely to exceed the largest single-year spike of 13% in 1968, the study noted, but that finding won't be verified until FBI crime statistics come out later this year.
"The fabric of American society has been tested in unprecedented ways in the past year — by the pandemic, the struggle against racial injustice, and economic decline," said Richard Rosenfeld, professor emeritus at the university and one of the study's authors, in a statement. "The combination of these stressors and a lack of effective outreach to at-risk individuals likely contributed to the elevated homicide rates we’ve seen in 2020."
While New York City residents saw killings in 2020 increase by 43% over 2019, Chicago had the largest hike at 55%, according the study, which was done in conjunction with Arnold Ventures, a Houston-based philanthropy organization.
It found a 6% increase in aggravated assault in large cities but an 8% decline in nonresidential burglaries. Robberies fell 9% from 2019, as did most property crimes such as residential burglaries. But motor vehicle thefts climbed by 13%.
In New York City, burglaries increased in 2020, NYPD Chief Michael LiPetri, head of crime control strategies for the department, said Wednesday. Violence surged in the city beginning in May and continued through the rest of 2020, LiPetri said.
Rosenfeld and his co-authors said that while early in the pandemic, homicides may have been suppressed because people kept away from each other, as the initial restrictions lifted, stress over the coronavirus among at-risk populations "likely contributed to elevated homicide rates in 2020."
Several other factors may have contributed to the homicide increase, according to the report, including an increase in firearm purchases at the start of the pandemic, and bail reforms, like those in New York State that began in 2020.
"While it is impossible to be certain, it is probable that the pandemic, protests and other factors combined to create a ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances pushing homicide rates to record level," the report concluded.
2020 crime trends in 34 U.S. cities compared to 2019:
- Homicides were 30% higher, with New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles accounting for 40% of the increase.
- Gun assaults in 15 of the cities with data available increased by nearly 8%.
- Aggravated assaults increased by just over 6% percent.
- Robberies declined by 9%.
- Residential burglaries declined by 34%.
- Nonresidential burglaries declined by 8%.
- Larceny declined by 20%
- Motor vehicle thefts rose by 13%.
Source: National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice