As the U.S. enters a new post-pandemic reality, cities across the country are dealing with a surge in homicides and other violent crimes — including a rash of mass shootings — with some officials fearing that the worst is yet to come.
“The spike in homicides and nonfatal shootings is extremely alarming,” said Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo, who recently left the Houston Police Department and leads the Major Cities Chiefs Association, an organization of law enforcement executives. “One of the reasons we talk about a bloody summer ahead for our country is because it’s already been a very bloody year, a very deadly year for Americans.”
Recent crime data shows that relatively few cities have been spared from a rise in homicides this year. While experts have some hope that this summer won’t be as deadly as 2020, which saw the biggest one-year spike in homicides in more than a generation, they cautioned that the U.S. may be on a troubling trajectory.
What the numbers show
A report released May 21 by the Council on Criminal Justice, which surveyed data in 32 cities and analyzed data in 24 of those cities, found that while homicides declined from their peak last summer, they rose by 24 percent between January and March compared with the same period in 2020, and by 49 percent compared with the same period in 2019.
“We have seen a big spike in homicide,” Rick Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri, who helped conduct the study, told Yahoo News. “We saw it last year in 2020 over the previous year. And that spike, though not as large, has persisted through the first quarter of this year. And that’s obviously troubling.”
Based on data from 63 police agencies across the country, the Major Cities Chiefs Association reported 1,721 homicides between Jan. 1 and March 31 of this year, up from 1,337 during the same period last year.
The country also saw sharp increases in nonfatal gun assaults and aggravated assaults, Rosenfeld said.
“So one question is, what do we have to look forward to this coming summer? I think we will, again, see homicide rates elevated,” Rosenfeld said. He included violent, nonfatal assaults, but added that he doesn’t think the increase will be as bad as last summer.
Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who analyzes crime data in New York City, specifically pertaining to gun violence, reached a similar conclusion. He co-wrote a blog post on May 25 saying that shootings in the city “grew sharply in 2020 and remained elevated in 2021, but the degree of increase may be in decline.”
“The discrepancy between prior years and [the] current [year] may be starting to come down,” he said. “But we really don’t know yet.”
Are we approaching '90s-level crime rates?
The rate of homicides and other forms of violent crime peaked in the early 1990s, but Rosenfeld said we’re not close to those levels of violence.
“We’re only at about half that peak right now,” he said, “even with the big rises we saw last year. Though, of course, if things don't change, we could get there.”
While the available crime data may leave some room for optimism, the spate of mass shootings — defined as shootings in which four or more people are injured or killed — in recent weeks is spurring fears of a violent summer.
In Chicago, for example, a shooting on the city’s South Side last Saturday left a woman dead and nine others injured, the Associated Press reported. The city has seen 282 murders so far this year as of June 13, up from 269 at the same time last year, and 1,311 shootings, up from 1,113, according to statistics from the Chicago Police Department.
Over that same weekend, a shooting at a busy downtown district in Austin, Texas, injured 14 people, AP reported. Law enforcement recorded 19 homicides in the city between Jan. 1 and March 31, up from 13 during the same period last year, according to the report from the Major Cities Chiefs Association.
“The uptick in gun violence locally is part of a disturbing rise in gun violence across the country as we exit the pandemic,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a statement shared on Twitter after the shooting.
What’s causing the violent crime surge?
There are many theories about the cause of the violence, but analysts and researchers are often careful about determining the root causes. Butts noted in his blog post that shootings tend to increase in the spring and summer and drop in the winter.
Acevedo, the Miami police chief, attributed the violence that occurred over the past year to economic stress that he says was “exacerbated by COVID.”
“We know that when the economy is depressed, people become depressed,” he said. “Domestic violence and crimes related to domestic violence [have] gone up in many cities across the country. So it’s a perfect storm.”
According to the report from the Council on Criminal Justice, the domestic violence rate was 4 percent lower between January and March of this year compared with the same period in 2020, based on data from 11 of the 32 cities the council surveyed. But an earlier report, from February, showed an 8.1 percent increase in domestic violence incidents after lockdowns were imposed last year.
Rosenfeld said he’s currently working on research that shows that if “all we had to deal with was the pandemic last summer, we would not have seen a big rise in homicide.” Residential confinement seemed to depress homicide rates before the summer, he said.
The report said that the rise in violent crime last summer coincided with the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder on May 25, 2020, although Rosenfeld stressed that there’s no definitive correlation between the events. “Homicide levels remained elevated through the summer, before decreasing through the late fall of 2020,” the report said.
The rise in homicides last year suggests that “last summer, the critical factor in the rise in homicide was probably not the pandemic,” Rosenfeld said. “Some people have argued that police pulled back considerably from their normal duties during the pandemic.”
“Another argument is that the legitimacy of the police was declining, especially in disadvantaged communities of color where police violence had been concentrated," he said. "So communities were drawing back even further from the police department and, as a result, [were] less willing to cooperate with the police and investigations, [and were] more willing to take matters into their own hands, and that contributed to the crime increase.”
Disturbed by the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S., Acevedo pointed to the proliferation of guns in the country and what he described as a dearth of meaningful legislation targeting issues such as the so-called gun-show loophole.
“We’re seeing these mass shootings all across the country,” he said. “And Congress and state legislators are standing around, not caring, because of the politics of that type of legislation.”
In the same vein, Butts, the John Jay College professor, noted that the whole world went through the pandemic, and yet it was American cities that saw a surge in killings and shootings.
“We all went through the same thing,” he said. “But only in American cities [was there] this surge in killing, in shootings. ... And that’s because that’s one thing we are unique in is the private ownership of just hundreds of millions of guns, especially handguns.”
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