Murders Are Spiking in America

What the data can’t tell us is why.

A police officer with caution tape.
Robert Nickelsberg / Getty

If 2020 was a year of death, COVID-19 was not the only culprit. Last year saw the largest increase in murders on record, according to new federal-government data.

There were some 21,500 murders in 2020—nearly 5,000 more than in 2019. That’s a 29 percent spike, far outpacing the previous record increase, 12.7 percent, set in 1968. Those numbers come from the FBI’s “Uniform Crime Report,” an annual report due out next week, whose numbers were posted online briefly this week and spotted by the crime analyst Jeff Asher.

The huge jump is not a surprise: The FBI’s annual September report is the gold standard for American crime data, but data from many cities had already indicated a big increase. The homicide spike is compelling evidence of federal, state, and local governments’ failure to keep Americans from killing one another, one of the most fundamental tasks of government.

And things have not yet calmed down. Other data collected by Asher suggest that the murder rate in 2021 is still rising, though it is doing so more slowly, with a 9.9 percent increase over the same period in 2020. While at least the rate of increase is slowing, that hardly counts as good news, since murders are still going up. Last year was not just a blip. The U.S. hasn’t figured out how to stop its homicide spike.

Absolute murder rates remain significantly below where they were at their worst points around 1980 and in the early 1990s. This is both an important piece of context and cold comfort, given the steep rise and the current continued rise.

What the “Uniform Crime Report” does not provide is much insight about why murder rates rose so steeply in 2020. Changes in the crime rate are multicausal and often poorly understood; scholars disagree about why America got so much safer from the 1990s to the 2010s, with explanations ranging from the direct (extremely aggressive policing) to the circuitous (the elimination of lead from gasoline).

But criminologists, police, and others have posited several plausible drivers of the current spike. One, most obviously, is the coronavirus pandemic, which affected Americans in many ways. More people were at home, creating different social patterns. More people lost jobs, and might have turned to dangerous and criminal behavior to make ends meet. People were stressed and unhappy. Many public programs that helped divert crime were curtailed or eliminated to prevent the spread of the virus, including violence-interruption programs that have been shown to be effective in reducing gun crime. Without those programs in place, violence built on itself. “We have a vicious cycle. Guns on the street are fueling shootings, and more shootings are fueling more guns on the street,” Jerry Ratcliffe, a criminal-justice professor at Temple University, told me in June.

A second major potential factor is the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May 2020, a few months into the pandemic. Floyd’s death—along with several other high-profile killings of Black people by police—set off some of the largest protests in American history, and police came under scrutiny around the country. Although murders were rising before those protests, the largest spike occurred after them (though murders do typically rise in the summer). Murder rates have spiked after previous major protests against police too.

Identifying a factor is not the same as identifying a mechanism, though, and many possibilities exist. Were police absorbed with responding to unrest, creating opportunities for murders away from view? Did police respond to the protests by pulling back from policing, and if they did, was that “blue flu”—the name given for informal work stoppages—or an attempt to respond to communities demanding less policing? Did murders increase because people lost faith in the police and were less willing to call them or speak to them about crimes? Some of these possibilities are interrelated, and to the extent that the questions are even answerable, we don’t have answers to them now.

Another odd feature of the data is that they show other crimes falling by only a few percentage points overall. Some of these drops are also pandemic-influenced; burglaries are thought to have dropped because people are at home more. This, again, shows the muddiness of what we understand about crime.

Criminal-justice-reform advocates have rightly cautioned against overreacting to the murder spike. Returning to brutal policing strategies may succeed in suppressing crime in the short term, but in the long term it undermines the legitimacy of the justice system and often violates citizens’ rights.

But if anything, the “Uniform Crime Report” data suggest that public reaction to the increase has been muted compared with the scale of the problem. Americans have been absorbed with other major stories—the pandemic, the Floyd-related protests, and the 2020 election and its aftermath chief among them. Americans also consistently overestimate crime rates, so in this sense the murder rate may simply be rising to the level where many people believed it was.

But unlike the crime wave of the 1980s and ’90s, which affected many Americans of all walks of life, the current spike appears to be heavily concentrated. Many homicide victims are Black men, living in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Some conservatives are willing to cynically use violence in Chicago as a political talking point, but the solutions they propose are not solutions at all. Some liberals are wary of talking about the crime wave, for fear that it will undermine efforts to reform police and the criminal-justice system. Caught in the middle are places with rising violence, where residents want safe communities without abusive policing.