In 2020, the United States experienced its biggest one-year increase in homicides since national records started in 1960, according to data collected by the FBI in its annual crime report.
The most significant previous annual change was the 12.7% increase in 1968. The national rate (homicides per 100,000 inhabitants) remains at around a third below the rate seen in the early 1990s.
According to FBI data, 21,500 people were killed last year (still well below the records set in the particularly violent era of the early 1990s), nearly 5,000 more than in 2019.
We may never fully know the reasons behind the increase, but analysts have pointed to several factors that may be contributing, including various pandemic-related stresses, the growing mistrust between police and the public as a result of the assassination of George Floyd, the number of police choosing to retire in response to the criticisms, and the increase in the number of firearms being carried on the street.
About 77% of reported homicides in 2020 were committed with a firearm, the highest share ever recorded, 10% up from 67% a decade ago.
The change in the murder rate was a national phenomenon, not a regional one. Homicides increased by more than 35% in cities with a population of more than 250,000. They also increased by more than 40% in cities with between 100,000 and 250,000 and roughly 25% in those with less than 25,000.
Even with the spike in homicides and the approximately 5% rise in violent crime, the new data shows that, overall, major crime fell by between 4 and 5% in 2020.
While murders may have a higher social cost, they constitute a small percentage of what the FBI classifies as major crimes. The overall fall in crime was undoubtedly related to the pandemic. Theft accounted for seven out of ten property crimes, and it’s difficult to shoplift when stores are closed. But the downward trend in overall crime started long before the pandemic: in 2020, the overall crime rate fell for the 18th consecutive year.
The employment of police officers has also been a determining factor. A survey of 200 police departments found significant increases in the number of officers retiring between April 2020 and April 2021.
The larger law enforcement agencies were substantially more likely to report a drop in officers than the smaller ones. Newark and New York City reported some of the biggest percentage decreases, with New York losing more than 2,500 officers from 2019 to 2020.
The crime figures from the country’s largest cities suggest that homicides have continued to increase in 2021, compared to 2020, although at a slower rate. So far, the figures from 87 cities with publicly available data show a 9.9% increase in homicides compared to the figures for this time last year.
Some cities like Portland, Oregon and Las Vegas are experiencing sharp rises compared to last year. Other big cities such as Chicago and New York are seeing similar numbers after significant increases in 2020. And some places, like Saint Louis (which had the highest homicide rate in the nation in 2020), have recorded significantly lower figures.