Murders in the US increased by almost 30% in 2020.
This was the main finding from data released by the FBI on September 27, 2021, which showed a nearly uniform increase in the homicide rate across the US.
The fact that large cities, small towns, suburbs and rural areas – in both blue and red states – had similar increases suggests that nationwide incidence or trends were behind the increase.
There would be a clear explanation given its prevalence in the COVID-19 pandemic 2020. But as a criminologist, I know that murder rates are influenced by many factors. And what happened in 2020 was a confluence of events that created the perfect conditions for an increase in murders.
stress and lack of support
COVID-19 likely had an effect. People were under psychological and financial pressure during the pandemic. Criminologists have long turned to “strain theory” to explain criminal behavior. Stress – 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 guilt when they do not have access to more positive coping mechanisms. And previous research has shown how financial stress and lack of social support work together to affect overall homicide rates.
But the pandemic was not the only major event of 2020 that potentially contributed to the increased murder rates. In May of the same year, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.
The killing of Floyd and the mass protests that followed put a crisis on the legitimacy of the police. In short, this meant that citizens’ confidence in the police had diminished.
When trust in the police drops just as dramatically after the murder of Floyd, the general public may be less likely to call 911 to report crimes or otherwise engage with the criminal justice system. Indeed, research by Desmond Ang at Harvard University shows 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 known as the “Ferguson Effect”, in which police officers make fewer stops which sometimes results in illegal guns being removed from the streets.
Research shows that very few people are disproportionately involved in violent crime. If this small group felt elated as a result of the legitimacy crisis, this could help explain the increase in murders.
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Lewis cited the “Ferguson effect” as a factor in the 17% increase in recorded homicides in US cities after a Missouri city police officer shot Michael Brown in 2014.
more guns = more gun kills
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 increased. This shows that more people were carrying guns illegally in 2020. And research has long confirmed that gun ownership is associated with higher rates of firearm homicides.
When courageous criminals have more guns in their hands, the likely outcome is more attempted and outright murders. This all happened during the height of a pandemic, meaning that 2020 was a perfect storm of factors that proved capable of producing the largest single-year suicide spike on record.
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