By Justin Nix
Homicides in the U.S. spiked by almost 30% in 2020.
That was the main takeaway from figures released on Sept. 27, 2021, by the FBI that showed almost uniform increases across America in the murder rate.
The fact that big cities, small cities, suburbs and rural areas – in both blue and red states – experienced similar increases in homicides suggests that nationwide events or trends were behind the rise.
The COVID-19 pandemic would be one obvious explanation given its pervasiveness in 2020. But as a criminologist, I know that homicide rates are affected by a number of factors. And what happened in 2020 was a confluence of events that created the perfect conditions for a spike in murders.
Stress and a lack of support
COVID-19 likely did have an impact. People were under increased psychological and financial pressure during the pandemic. Criminologists have long pointed to “strain theory” to explain criminal behavior. Stressors – such as unemployment, isolation and uncertainty about the future – can lead to increased frustration and anger. People experiencing these negative emotions are more prone to turn to crime when they lack access to more positive coping mechanisms. And previous research has shown how financial stressors and a lack of social support work together to influence the overall homicide rate.
But the pandemic wasn’t the only major event of 2020 that likely contributed to the increased homicide rates. In May of that year, George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis.
Floyd’s murder and the large-scale protests that followed sparked a police legitimacy crisis. In short, this means citizens’ trust in police was diminished.
The ‘Ferguson effect’
When trust in the police falls as dramatically as it did following Floyd’s murder, the general public may become less likely to call 911 to report crimes or otherwise engage with the criminal justice system. Indeed, research by Desmond Ang at Harvard University suggests that after Floyd’s death, 911 calls dropped significantly in the eight cities he and his colleagues studied.
High-profile cases of police brutality are also associated with what has become known as the “Ferguson effect,” in which police officers make fewer stops that occasionally result in illegal guns being taken off the streets.
Research shows that a small number of people are disproportionately involved in violent crime. If this small group felt emboldened as a result of the legitimacy crisis, then it might help explain the increase in homicides.
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, cited the “Ferguson effect” as a factor in the 17% hike in homicides recorded in U.S. cities after Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in the Missouri city in 2014.
More guns = more gun homicides
There is also evidence that gun carrying increased in 2020.
Crime analyst Jeff Asher and data scientist Rob Arthur found that in 10 cities, although police made fewer arrests in 2020, the number of gun seizures went up. This suggests more people were illegally carrying guns in 2020. And research has long confirmed that gun ownership is linked to higher rates of firearm homicides.
When there are more guns in the hands of emboldened offenders, then the likely result is more attempted and completed murders. That this all happened during the height of a pandemic means 2020 was a perfect storm of factors that proved capable of producing the largest single-year homicide spike on record.
Justin Nix is Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
It’s going to be just as bad or worse in 2021 & beyond. Same social issues only less the BLM Summer of riots & loots of 2020.
Mike Cocchiola says
Hmmm… the Trump Republican Syndrome? The answer to murder is more guns. The answer to guns is more murders.
The Unvarnished Truth says
Is “Trump”, “Trump supporters” or “Republicans” the go-to answer for everything negative? Trump is no longer president and the VAST MAJORITY of murders are not done by any of the aforementioned people. You know the real perpetrators, but like mass media – you are afraid to say it out loud…
Land of no turn signals says says
We have taught Everyone gets a trophy and rewards for bad behavior.All coming back to bite you in the ass.
Why would it change just look at what the Democrats do daily there is no consequences for any crimes today.
Ray W. says
A good thing about attending death penalty conferences is the quality of the various presenters. Some of the presenters at the approximately 20 conferences that I attended were extraordinary speakers. I have taken the opportunity to share some of their wise words with FlaglerLive readers on other issues. Randy’s thoughts, misguided as they are, triggers the opportunity, perhaps even need, to share another portion of a presentation with FlaglerLive readers.
In 2015 or 2016, a presenting neuropsychologist spoke of his frustration over the Republican choice to cut off funding for a 20-year experiment focusing on at-risk children living in Chicago. The presenter spoke of a 1994 bill passed by Democrats that had a 20-year funding limit; it was defunded by a Republican Party congress in 2014. I suspect that many FlaglerLive readers will recall that Gingrich led the resurgence of the Republican Party in Congress in the November 1994 election, using the catchy “Contract with America” slogan.
The specifics of the legislation were simple. Various neuropsychologists testified to a congressional committee to the effect that intervening in the life of a seriously abused child might make a difference in that child’s life, with the goal of reducing crime. Using the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) criteria, beginning in 1995, Chicago’s child services agencies would search out and identify 16 and 17 year old children who had a documented history of experiencing seven or more of the 10 categories of ACE’s. ACE categories, for example, range from children who witness a violent assault upon a family member to that same child being sexually abused. Those children meeting the criteria received services in three categories: 1. Tutoring. 2. Adult mentoring. 3. Job training. Just under 400 16 and 17 year old children were identified that first year. For 20 years, new children were identified each year and provided with services.
In 1994, Chicago suffered from 930 homicides. In the three years before that: 927, 940, and 850. Each year during the new program, with small blips upwards occasionally, saw the number of homicides drop, reaching a low of 411 homicides in 2014. Homicide prosecutors and police detectives had to be reassigned to different duties. An argument can be made that some 5000 people are alive today, in part because of the program’s effect on at-risk children. Other factors have to be considered, such as the strength of the economy and the interrelated unemployment rate, etc. I am not arguing that the program was the only reason that the homicide rate dropped, but the correlation as presented during the conference seems strong.
In 2015, after the program was defunded, homicides rose to 478. The next year? 765. It then dropped for a couple of years, but now it is rising again. Did the experiment work? The presenter obviously thought it did and he predicted that the homicide rate in Chicago would rise. Hence, his frustration during the presentation.
During the 2016 election season, I remember listening to news coverage of Trump referring to the rising homicide rate in Chicago at various rallies. Part of me knew then that Trump was not responsible for the Republican congressional decision to defund the long-successful program, but part of me, the cynical part of me, had to think that the Republican decision was made for political reasons, so that people like Randy, who presents himself as a person who has little clue about how the world works, would post his claims and that politicians of a certain political party could point to the rising homicide rate and raise money out of fearmongering.
You must know that the very word “Chicago” is a dog whistle to the right conjuring up what Southerners call the “Nat Turner Syndrome.” Trump has made acceptable nationally what George Wallace could not and his “fine people” are not going away.
Until the courts start putting criminals behind bars and for those that kill on death row nothing will change for the criminal mind. Right now they can walk into a store and steal at will and walk on out. Get caught and get a slap on the wrist. This means A weak justice system along with money-grabbing lawyers ( the ones that work to get a case reduced) equals an increase in crime.
David Schaefer says
Trump, Trump, and more Trump….
Consider the possibility that it’s just NOT that simple. . . that a number of factors have contributed to this increase:
1. The massive proliferation of GUNS available WITHOUT “comprehensive” background checks . . . there are now more guns than people in our country!
2. Almost ZERO “long termed”/”intensive” psychological treatment for the many thousands in immediate need. At best, we have “insurance tightly restricted” counseling for those suffering from terrible things like PTSD, along with very short termed access to highly limited drug rehabilitation facilities.
3. Instead of “treating” those suffering/acting out from mental instability. Our system has a revolving door of only addressing the “crime” instead of the “cause”, while the NRA arms them for their crimes. Therefore, we fill up our courts and jails with the mentally disturbed, who are too often minors. We warehouse hundreds of thousands in jails with little or ZERO rehabilitation/mental treatment programs.
4. Drug addiction overlaps and feeds the combination of guns being readily available and very little in the way of mental health treatment options. Judges often feel compelled to release young perpetrators rather than have a “felony conviction” absolutely ruin their chances for any kind of success in life. Unfortunately, they are released right back into a society and circumstance where there is almost ZERO chances for them to “permanently” shake their addiction. That often leads to the revolving door of criminals going from the streets to jail and back again.
This is precisely why we need a whole new “comprehensive” approach on “Policing and Criminal Law”, “Gun Safety Regulations” AND “Mental Health” Intervention and Extensive Treatment.