Homicides Up, Understanding Not

Terry H. Schwadron

May 3, 2021

Homicides are rising again and consistently since 2014 in big cities and smaller ones, in Democratic areas and Republican, but no one knows just quite why.

Recent studies by the FBI and private sources confirm that there has been a rise in murders and, more generally, homicides in New York, Washington, Oakland, Kansas City, Louisville, Atlanta. The news site Axios reports that a sample of 37 cities with data available for the first three months of 2021 collected by the crime analyst Jeff Asher indicates murders are up 18% over the same period in 2020 — a year in which city homicides grew by a third.

Indeed, 63 of the 66 largest police jurisdictions saw an increase in at least one category of violent crime, according to a report from the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

Over the last year, some politicians, particularly from the Right, have been quick to point to lockdowns and pandemic as a contributing cause, with its built-in frustrations over unemployment, while those on the Left have blamed scorn for policing and a rise of violence among White nationalist groups.

Gun-control advocates note the consistency of mass shootings for a rise in the numbers and worry about broadened open-carry laws, while those promoting gun control talk of the increasing need for self-protection and, disputedly, a rise in suicides in the pandemic (statistics say otherwise). What no one seems to dispute is that that mass killings from shootings are on the rise, along with record sales of guns and ammo.

There seems little nationwide evidence that widespread protests in 2020 to perceived policing abuses against people of color correlate statistically with homicide cases rising, nor data to specifically link pandemic effects with crime rise. After all, lockdowns generally kept people home.

We did see statistically important increases in hate crimes over the last year.

We should be able to agree that homicides were rising even before the pandemic kicked in — the statistics show a national low in 2014 — and a steady rise since. And we should be able to agree that without knowing the causes, our society is ill-prepared to offer solutions.

As it happened, the FBI is transitioning to new crime-reporting systems that it hopes will affect public accounting for crime trends. Some 75% of policing agencies say they will comply with the new systems.

How Bad?

Just for perspective, Axios notes that New York City recorded 462 homicides in 2020, an increase of nearly 45%, but in 1990 the city recorded 2,605 murders — more than seven per day. That never stops politicians from blaming whoever the current mayor is, particularly if he is outgoing Bill DeBlasio, a self-described progressive who utters just enough anti-policing technique criticism to make himself a target on crime rise.

And people die at the hands of themselves or others for a variety of reasons and weapons, but there is no doubt that we are making guns more available — or, in the case of some recent police shootings, cell phones or other equipment that get mistaken for guns.

The more questions about policing actions, the more the human desire to take matters in one’s own hands. If the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, we shouldn’t be surprised to see more shootings. Plus, mental health problems on the street are not going anywhere fast, increasing the chances of violent ends to seemingly non-violent confrontations.

Now we’re facing a summer, traditionally a time of rising personal heat as well as outdoor heat, when people are reemerging from pandemic hideouts, still not fully back to work, still seething over perceived mistreatment by vaccinators, lockdowns, contested political divides over masking and the rest that makes a routine ride on the subway a watchful act.

Generally speaking, our politicians merely repeat the same solutions. Republicans see a singular solution: More, militarized policing. Democrats see investing in social services on a vast scale to change perceptions of exclusion from opportunity.

No single motto is going to account for quick rising anger.

Analyzing the Numbers

Jeff Asher, a crime analyst based in New Orleans and co-founder of AH Datalytics, sees rises of 20% to 25% in murder rates among 37 cities reporting quarterly figures to the FBI, biased on sometimes low mathematical base numbers which magnify percentage increases.

As he wrote in a New York Times essay last month, “Although it’s not clear what has caused the spike in murder, some possibilities are the various stresses of the pandemic; the surge in gun sales during the crisis; and less belief in police legitimacy related to protests over police brutality.”

The FBI is moving from its Uniform Crime Report, in use since 1929 as the nation’s repository of crime data, to a new system with more detail. The existing systems, for example, listed a single crime category for an incident, while several may apply. And there are only seven main categories of national crime data reported.

As of Jan. 1, the FBI switched to the National Incident Based Response System (NIBRS) which collects data on a wider array of offenses, and could list up to 10 different offenses in a single incident.

In this matter of homicides, what else was going on might help explain the why behind the numbers.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics said 75% of law enforcement agencies said they would contribute to the system’s data, which actually is less than the current 90% using the previous systems. Plus, with more offenses reported per incident, it may appear that we have a lot more crimes being reflected.

We should note the increase in homicides, but without more information, it is hard to know what to do about it. Besides, it’s not clear that we would act even if we did know. We are so invested in gun ownership and gun “rights” that we won’t even look at increased background checks or safety checks on guns. We’re so divided over finding politics in vaccines and masks that a large number of Americans are simply looking away from public health measures for individual liberty.

We are seeing more homicides. Is anyone concerned about stopping them?






Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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Terry Schwadron

Terry Schwadron

Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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