As the United States struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic and attendant economic disruption, another problem may be looming – murder rates have risen in many of America’s largest cities.
Murders are up by double-digit percentages in cities across America, including New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, according to crime statistics, while some smaller cities like Charlotte, North Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida, have also seen significant increases.
Rates of homicide and gun assault began to increase in late May, according to data from the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, and while the murder rate is still low compared with previous decades, the evidence is clear: the situation is worsening.
Last year was particularly low for murder, but even compared with the last five years, 2020 has seen a serious increase.
“Overall it is pretty unquestionable that there is more violence, we’re hearing that anecdotally and it’s certainly what the data is showing too,” said Charles Ransford, senior director of science and policy, at Cure Violence Global, an organization which trains outreach workers to intervene and mediate conflict in communities which have a high rate of violence.
In Chicago and New York City, community members have reported dramatic situations on the ground.
“People are using words like “chaos”, and “things are out of control”, and “things are just off the hook”, these are the kinds of words people are using. [We’re hearing that] things are just really heating up, and really getting a little crazy,” Ransford said.
In late July, data analyst Jeff Asher found that compared with 2019, murder was up a combined 23% to a total of 2,219 murders in the 23 largest American cities, even as other types of crime had reduced.
A Wall Street Journal analysis from the country’s 50 largest cities reported an almost identical trend. Homicides were up 24%, to a total of 3,512 murders across the cities, and Austin, Texas, saw the biggest increase compared with 2019, a rise of more than 50%.
The numbers have been increasing as anti-racism protests have spread across the US in response to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. Some Republicans, including Donald Trump, have attempted to tie the two together, but experts say there is no evidence the demonstrations are linked to the spike.
“As far as I’ve been made aware there is no connection,” Ransford said. “The people involved in the protests, the people involved in the riots, are not the people that are involved in violence in these communities.”
It is too early to be certain about the exact reason for the rise. But Ransford said stresses from unemployment and from young people being out of school may have caused the increase in murder as society comes under strain in numerous ways. He said the release of some prisoners due to coronavirus outbreaks, and the failure to help those released reintegrate into society, could be a factor, along with more general financial hardship in neighborhoods which were already struggling.
Tens of millions of people have now lost their jobs due to the impact of coronavirus, and many more have been forced to remain home as states have entered various degrees of lockdown.
The total number of people claiming unemployment benefits rose to 31.8 million through to the week ending 18 July, and as of 7 August unemployment in the US was 10.2%, three times the rate in February.
“Unemployment and the housing insecurity that come along with Covid, the general stress, the marital strife that we’ve seen, with higher rates of domestic violence and higher rates of divorce, have all spiked during periods of Covid,” Goff said.
The economic hardship could force people to turn to crime.
“When you have fewer rates of traditional income, basically if you can’t feed yourself you look for other sources of income,” Goff said. “You turn to underground economy – that’s what we call crime – when you turn to any form of underground economy, it’s more likely you’re gonna need to use violence to maintain that economy. So violence clusters where economic deprivation clusters.”
Goff also said there was “no connection” between the murder rate and the protests, but that lack of evidence has not deterred Trump, who seized upon the increase to pledge to send federal agencies into some cities hit by social unrest and calls to cut funding to their police departments.
Trump has attempted to tie the murder rate to Democrats, specifically cities run by Democratic mayors, and their management of the protests. Yet there is evidence that spending money on community programs, as opposed to more policing, can make a difference.
Sherry Towers, a data scientist and visiting scholar at Purdue University, has documented shootings and how they can have a contagious effect. She has worked with Ransford at Cure Violence Global, which has partners in more than 25 cities, and has monitored shootings in New York so far this year.
“I looked at precincts that had CVG partner sites, and precincts that did not. The precincts that had partner sites had less of a rise in shootings than non-partner sites,” Towers said.
“Which is interesting in this whole conversation about, quote unquote, ‘defunding police’ – which some people understand as: ‘Defund the police [entirely]’, and other people are like: ‘Well perhaps we should be spending more on social programs that are non-traditional intervention in violence.’
“CVG is an example of that, and based on the New York City data, it seems to work.”