4 min read
What’s Behind an American Pandemic Crimewave?

Elliana James

There is a strong public perception in the United States that crime has increased in 2020 and continuing into 2021. The first question to ask is, is that true? According to an article in The Atlantic in September 2021, there is a different answer depending on whether one looks at property crimes or homicide rates. Based on their investigations, which uses the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, there was a 12% increase in aggravated assaults in 2020 (which were defined as attacks or even threats that cause serious injuries or in which weapons are used. By this definition even pointing a loaded gun at someone would be an aggravated assault.) There was also a shocking 30% increase in murders in the same time period, but not in property crime. Burglary and larceny (theft of personal property) were overall down by 8%, perhaps because so many people were stuck at home and criminals did not want to engage them directly. Motor vehicle theft and thefts of things inside motor vehicles did increase. People want to protect their property, but even more so they want to protect their lives and the lives of people they care about. In addition to individual shootings and violence, the very highly publicized murder of George Floyd in May 2020, while he was being taken into police custody in Minneapolis, MN led to months of civil unrest, demonstrations, and protests that sometimes turned into riots, throughout the US. 

Almost two million articles were written in the two weeks after George Floyd’s death and the unrest that immediately followed. Politics played an important role in how the events were portrayed. CNN discusses how both the GOP and the Democratic Party used data to advance their agendas on crime in general. The Democrats can point to the amazing number of individually owned guns in the United States, which will be discussed later in this article. The Democratic narrative suggests that gun control legislation would stem the tide of violent altercations. Some Democrats called for defunding the police after George Floyd’s death. The Republicans pointed to the “defund the police” movement as being a primary cause for the crime wave. Their contention and messaging was that, due to widespread “defunding” there were far less police available to make arrests. They also contended that there was a vast number of police quitting their jobs during this time. Let’s examine both of these contentions. 

Looking at Minneapolis, MN, the city where George Floyd was murdered by a police officer while arresting him, and which was a flashpoint for the “defund the police” effort, at the end of 2020, the city moved $8 million out of a total $179 million police budget to cover additional violence prevention services, including mental health services. In a sharp reversal of policy, Minneapolis increased the police budget for 2022 by $27 million. The theme of cutting some parts of the police budget in 2020 and then restoring some of it in 2021 was repeated in multiple cities across the country. In short, while many cities and counties across America were pressured to cut funding to the police, within the next year the population pressured local governments to increase their funding to their police departments. 

Regarding the argument that police officers were quitting in droves, we have data to show that the police ranks were thinning, but so were many other jobs. In fact, the level of recent job resignations has been termed the “great resignation”. Using Federal Data to substantiate the claim that police were quitting in droves, the Marshall Project found that there were far fewer police who quit during 2020 than people who quit jobs in other industries. The Marshall Project argued that a stable police workforce existed throughout the nation and cutting police funding is generally last on the list of budget items to face cuts. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (US Federal Government), there was a 1% attrition rate, nationwide, in law enforcement personnel, from 2019 to 2020. In many cases, digging deeper into the data it was revealed that police were taking early retirement or moving to other, less community-facing positions, within the same or neighboring public service structure. 

On a side note, the idea that Black communities in America want the police to leave doesn’t stand the test of polls and interviews. In reality, most Americans, including Black Americans in urban settings, want the police to be available and to do their job of protecting the community. Eric Adams was elected to the Mayor’s office in New York City by providing that assurance to his public. This leaves the very real and very statistically supported fact that there was a sharp, sharp uptick in homicides and other violent crimes in the United States in 2020 and 2021, compared to 2019. Who is affected? Who is dying and who are the killers?

The homicide numbers have been supported by the FBI and the Pew Research Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank. Homicide numbers are still being compiled and analysis is far from over. The FBI shares homicide statistics for 2020 at between 17,720 people and 18,519 people. The reason for the discrepancy is that they are compiling data from only a little over 60% of the 15 thousand agencies that operate nationwide and in Washington, D.C. Given the constraints in reporting data on homicides, it is important to note that of the 17,813 murders reported through the FBI Crime Data Explorer, 13,663 deaths were attributed to some form of firearm, comprising 76% of murders reported.

Are the perpetrators being apprehended? Yes and no. Of the reported 18,519 victims in the FBI Crime Data Explorer database, 9,564 were killed by unknown assailants at the time of the murder been reported. This is approximately 50% of the murders. Of the known perpetrators, about 10% were strangers to their victims. In all other known cases, there was a familial, work, or romantic relationship. A third and last assessment of the homicide victims was to determine why the event took place. In nearly half the homicides there was no known cause. About a quarter was determined to be the result of arguments, domestic or social. Drugs, burglary, and gang violence were the other causes, but surprisingly enough they accounted for less than 20% of the total. 

Digging a little deeper into the high homicide spike states in the US we looked at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania which experienced a 13% increase in killings from the previous year. Unenviably, Philadelphia had 501 homicides in 2021. Fully 89% of these deaths were due to firearms. Violent crime doesn’t always lead to death and there were also 2,332 people shot in the same time frame. Who are the victims of these shootings? In Philadelphia 80% of those shot were Black and young Black men were the greatest number of casualties accounting for 280 deaths, more than half the total.

Illinois has tough gun laws only in Chicago. In the rest of the state, there isn’t even a requirement to register your guns. Those stronger local laws did nothing to stop Chicago from experiencing 800 homicides in 2021. Police in Chicago and the surrounding area were on track in October 2021 to confiscate over 12,000 illegal guns. Considering how frequently the homicides in the US are a result of gun violence it might be instructive to evaluate if there was a general increase in gun ownership. Because every state in the US has different gun laws and citizens perceive a need or desire to own guns an average is hard to evaluate accurately. The number of guns owned by individuals in the US ranges from 200 million to 350 million plus. An analysis of rates of gun ownership in various states shows that Wyoming and Montana have gun ownership rates of approximately 66% of all households there. Although Wyoming has a population of over 578,000 people, there were only 14 murders in 2020. And, yes, most of them were committed with guns. That still doesn’t explain why the roughly 381,000 gun-owning citizens of Wyoming didn’t commit a gun murder. 

You might think that a large increase in firearm purchasing would drive more firearm violence. The studies available to date do not support that at a state level. Previous surges in firearm purchases that followed mass shootings and political events have been shown to lead to an increase in shootings. The pandemic timeframe where there was an uptick in firearms purchases has so far not been shown to be a major factor in this surge of violence. 

To understand the current rise of violence one must look beyond simplistic catchy slogans to understand why the trend of more violence, aggravated assaults, and murders occurred in the United States occurred in 2020 and 2021. It is clear that the people in the United States are reacting by buying more guns if legal and easily accessible in their area, obtaining guns through other means if not, and looking to elect officials who say the right things about protecting them as well.

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