Completely apart from the bipartisan blame game over crime there is the stark reality that in most American cities, murders have gone up.
One survey of America’s larger cities found that between 2019 and 2020, homicide deaths rose more than 30%. An analysis of 34 cities found a “historic increase.”
Some Republicans say rising homicides are due to the “defund the police” movement and the failures of Democratic urban leaders. Some Democrats point the finger at the wide availability of guns and Republican resistance to police reform.
City trends vary
A preliminary FBI crime report for 154 cities shows that murders rose 10% across the group in the first quarter of 2021 compared with a year earlier. But look closer and you find that the increase was concentrated in 40% of the cities. The remaining 60% saw murders drop or stay the same.
As far as Ben Frazier can tell, the problem predates 2020. Frazier, an activist in Jacksonville, Fla., heads up the Northside Coalition, a community group focused on stopping the shootings in the handful of neighborhoods where about two-thirds of the city’s murders take place. One ZIP code in that area has been dubbed “the killing fields.”
“For us, 2019 was the pivotal year,” Frazier said. “I can’t see a difference due to the pandemic. Because what we saw happen in 2020, started before.”
In 2019, murders in Jacksonville went up 21%. The following year, 2020, the increase was less than half as much—8%.
Frazier said he is hard-pressed to find an explanation that doesn’t include the area’s extreme poverty.
“Half of the people are living below the federal poverty line,” Frazier said. “We have double-digit unemployment. The kids walk the streets in roving bands. It’s a very disappointing, depressing picture to see so many young Black men with nothing to do.”
And, Frazier said, there was ready access to weapons.
“I have nothing to point to as far as statistics, but I can only tell you that there were far too many guns in the hands of people who should not have them,” he said.
A careful analysis of trends in 34 cities by the Council on Criminal Justice, an independent source of crime data lends support to Frazier’s broader themes, but suggests that in many places, the mix of factors was more complicated.
“More disadvantaged cities — those with higher poverty and unemployment rates—experienced greater increases in homicide in 2020,” the report said.
Guns have been readily available for some time, the report said, and there’s no clear evidence yet of a shift there that would explain a rise in murders in 2020.
The council’s study of 34 cities found a 24% increase in homicides in the first quarter of 2021, but it notes that three cities in its sample—New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—accounted for 40% of the increase.
With great circumspection, the report’s authors concluded that “while it is impossible to be certain, it is probable that the pandemic, protests, and other factors all combined to create a perfect storm of circumstances pushing homicide rates to record levels.”
Jon Greenberg is a senior correspondent with PolitiFact.