Coming out of the pandemic, how can cities counter 2020’s sharp rise in homicides?


Among 34 large cities studied, homicide rates increased almost 30% last year, compared to 2019. Reasons for the shocking spike relate in large part to the pandemic and its societal impacts, but the killing of George Floyd may have been a contributing fact

Among 34 large cities studied, homicide rates increased almost 30% last year, compared to 2019. Reasons for the shocking spike relate in large part to the pandemic and its societal impacts, but the killing of George Floyd may have been a contributing factor as well. Evidence-based approaches and committed elected officials will be key to reducing violent crime in American cities going forward.

As the nation grew accustomed to mask rules and social distancing last year, and a new normal began to set in, criminologists Thomas Abt and Rick Rosenfeld issued a warning: Do not ignore violent crime. Other experts had begun to speculate that stay-at-home orders intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus would also reduce crime rates, but the two criminologists believed that as the country opened back up, homicide rates would increase, leading to an anticipated higher overall homicide rate for 2020.

As part of the Urban Edge’s ongoing “COVID-19 and Cities” series, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research is examining the urban landscape a year after the pandemic began. These stories take a look back at the past year and ahead to what will be different in the years to come.

“Early stats showed a decline in crime, but we believe that policymakers should not become complacent,” Abt and Rosenfeld wrote in the Houston Chronicle roughly five months into the pandemic. “There’s reason to believe that 2020 will actually end up being a more violent year than 2019.”

They were, unfortunately, correct. Last year saw the largest single year-over-year spike in homicide rates since criminologists began collecting data. Politicians and public officials may have failed to summon the response necessary to keep violent crime rates low in 2020, but there is still time for bold, evidence-based policy that can curb violence and save lives.

A temporary peace

When Abt and Rosenfeld wrote their first report, with support from Arnold Ventures, pundits had two good reasons to believe that the response to COVID-19 would lead to a decline in violent crime. Stay-at-home orders would keep people out of the public spheres where crime occurs, and the opportunities for criminals and victims to meet would inherently be reduced. As Abt and Rosenfeld put it, “Crime thrives on activity patterns — a three-legged stool of a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of a capable guardian.” The response to the pandemic removed two of those legs and, accordingly, violent crime dipped — with the exception of domestic violence.

In their study of 64 major U.S. cities — the largest study of its kind — Abt and Rosenfeld compared monthly homicide rates from January through June of 2020 with the previous three-year average homicide rates during the same months. They found a significant drop on average, with a 22-point decline in April. But not every city saw a decline in homicides. For example, homicide rates fell in Dallas, El Paso, Ft. Worth and San Antonio in April and May, but rose in Austin and Houston. And as some cities began to reopen in May, that decline began to slow.

“That smaller decrease in May suggests the homicide decline may well be temporary,” Abt and Rosenfeld wrote. “In fact, homicide actually increased substantially during the first three months of 2020, before the widespread shutdowns took hold.”

Looking at this information, the two criminologists predicted that not only would violent crime rates rebound, but would actually continue to rise for the rest of the year. Abt and Rosenfeld believed that the dip was temporary and that the continued pandemic would eventually become a driver for violent crime in three distinct ways.

► Public institutions responsible for responding to violence — such as law enforcement, hospitals and social services — would become overwhelmed by the pandemic and see their budgets cut during the economic crisis.

► Social distancing requirements would thwart intervention and outreach programs that target people most at risk of being a victim or perpetrator of a violent crime.

► The continuing economic downturn would lead people to engage in criminal activity out of financial desperation.

However, there was another dynamic that Abt and Rosenfeld identified at the time that would end up becoming a much larger part of the picture: a crisis in the legitimacy of law enforcement. On May 26, George Floyd was murdered under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. His death sparked national protests against police violence and police misconduct. Many of these protests were met with violent suppression that, the authors worried, would undercut trust in the criminal justice system. This dynamic, known as the “Ferguson Effect,” results in a two-way path of mistrust: People stop engaging with police and reporting crimes while, at the same time, police stop engaging with people and reduce their active efforts to fight violence.

“Emerging research suggests that if people don’t think they’re treated fairly by police, they’re less likely to rely on the traditional functions of law enforcement and more likely to act violently on their own. We saw this phenomenon in 2015 and 2016 when protests over police misconduct coincided with a significant increase in homicides.”

When they published their follow-up research, Abt and Rosenfeld found that the homicide rate following the killing of George Floyd was higher than any other period during 2020. The causal relationships between these issues remains poorly understood, and experts agree that more research on this specific dynamic is much-needed and long overdue.

A most violent year

Houstonians probably don’t need criminologists to tell them that they have just lived through a record-setting increase in violent crime. A newspaper subscription will suffice. The Houston Chronicle reported at the end of the year that more than 400 people were murdered in the city in 2020 — a stark increase from the 281 deaths in 2019. But Houston wasn’t alone. Cities across the country were reporting unexpected increases in violent crime.

Looking back at the year, Abt and Rosenfeld released a follow-up report — this time narrowed to 34 major cities — that was released by Arnold Ventures and the National Commission on COVID-19. It found that homicide rates in big cities grew by 30% in 2020. This far exceeds the previous largest single-year increase of 12.7% in 1968. In these 34 cities alone, the spike in killings took the lives of 1,268 people.

This tragic loss of life compounds the ongoing trauma of the pandemic, and it should be no surprise that people have responded to the increased homicide rates with calls for a robust response. However, it is important that this response be backed by evidence if there is to be any hope of actually tackling violent crime.

“[A]s with the pandemic, reactions to this crime wave that are grounded in fear or panic will only be counterproductive,” Abt and Rosenfeld write. “Despite the dramatic jump in last year’s homicide rate, violent crime remains below the historical peaks of the 1990s. The average homicide rate last year in the 34 cities we studied was 11 per 100,000 population in 2020, compared with 19 per 100,000 residents in those cities in 1995.”

A crisis like this should spark a robust policy response — one driven not only by a sense of urgency, but backed by evidence and data.

No fear

Unfortunately, Texas has seen much of the conversation around the increase in homicides driven by an understandable, but misguided, sense of fear and panic. For example, some pundits have tried to blame recent reforms to pretrial detention in Harris County for the spike in violent crime rates. This claim simply isn’t backed by data. In fact, outside researchers found that Harris County’s pretrial reforms did not result in any significant change to recidivism rates — in other words, releasing more people before trial did not lead to more crime. And the county’s own analysis found that use of secured bonds — money bail bonds — was actually associated with higher murder counts.

While it makes sense that an unprecedented increase in homicides would have people calling for immediate action, it is important to keep in mind that the wrong policy will not only fail to make things better but might actually make things worse. There is no evidence that reversing pretrial reforms in Harris County will reduce violent crime. Undoing these reforms will, however, require people to be held behind bars who are unlikely to commit new crimes or miss their court dates, causing them to be away from their jobs, homes, families and communities, and suffer a litany of collateral harms even while they’re still considered innocent under the law.

So, what does an evidence-based response look like?

Fight COVID, fight violence

In their recent report, Abt and Rosenfeld call on policymakers to take quick, robust action to help lower homicide rates, and offer three key policy recommendations.

First, they call on local governments to restart proactive violence reduction programs that may have been slowed or halted as part of COVID-19 precautions. The pandemic has limited efforts to conduct outreach to individuals vulnerable to violence involvement, which is a key component of evidence-based violence-reduction efforts.

“These efforts require face-to-face interaction by police, public health, and community- based workers with those most likely to be involved with violence; such interactions cannot be replaced by Zoom,” Abt and Rosenfeld write.

Policymakers can take key steps to help restart and accelerate these programs. From the early days of the pandemic, the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence has called on local and state governments to declare outreach workers as essential workers and ensure they have continued funding even under the pressure of budget crunches. Before COVID-19, these outreach workers played a critical role as a sort of civil diplomat, helping to slow the interpersonal cycles of violence that drive so much of the injury and death in the United States today. During the pandemic, many cities expanded their roles to help distribute information and resources, such as food, to people most at risk of contracting the virus.

The designation of “essential workers” allows these street outreach and other violence-reduction workers to continue their intervention efforts, even during restrictions on other businesses. As distribution of COVID-19 vaccines continues to scale up, outreach workers and other frontline responders to violence should also receive top priority for receiving shots so they can interact with people — and vice versa — with a reduced risk of spreading the disease.

Second, Abt and Rosenfeld call on policymakers to take seriously the protests against police violence and earnestly engage in reforms that can help build trust between law enforcement and the communities they’re supposed to protect and serve. It is important that people see law enforcement as a public service that is accountable to democratic institutions.

“Some commentators suggest that the need for safety (freedom from violent and other crime) and the need for justice (freedom from excessive and unequal exercises of state power) are in tension with one another,” Abt and Rosenfeld write. “They are not. To sustainably reduce homicide and other violent crime in disadvantaged communities, those communities must believe they are being treated fairly and appropriately by the police and other components of the justice system.”

To that end, the Council on Criminal Justice has issued several key recommendations through its Task Force on Policing. These recommendations include banning chokeholds, prohibiting or severely restricting the use of no-knock warrants, and requiring officers to intervene when they witness excessive force or other misconduct.

Meanwhile, legislators across the nation are working to remove legal provisions that conceal data on use of force, make it hard to fire officers who engage in misconduct and allow them to be re-hired elsewhere, and, in general, erect barriers to accountability in law enforcement. These state-level changes represent major shifts in how lawmakers regulate law enforcement agencies, creating the potential for increasing levels of community trust.

The third and final recommendation isn’t any specific policy. Rather, Abt and Rosenfeld emphasize the need for immediate action that can meet the historic nature of the moment. Governments have at their disposal a body of evidence-backed policies that are shown to reduce violent crime without the need for significant spending, new laws or revolutionary reforms.

“It is now well-established that by using a combination of programmatic efforts that are collectively focused, balanced, and fair, policymakers can make concrete progress on curbing violent street crime,” Abt and Rosenfeld write.

The key challenge facing policymakers is finding ways to “COVID-proof” well-tested programs. This includes guaranteeing access to vaccines and any required personal protective equipment, along with the necessary health and medical care, to first responders such as police, public health and street outreach workers.

The only thing standing in the way is a sense of urgency and action from our nation’s leaders.

A reason to hope

The compounding tragedies of the past year make it easy to feel things will continue to get worse — that even as the wave of deaths from the pandemic begins to recede, the nation will have to grapple with a rising tide of violence. However, there’s reason to hope that the right policies, an improving economy, robust federal support for local budgets and a wave of policing reforms can help make the nation safer.

As the Biden administration exceeds its promise of delivering 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations within 100 days, we may finally be at the beginning of the end of the pandemic. A return to normalcy — even if it is a new normal — means the systems that were recently able to keep violent crime under control can once again be brought back to full strength.

The recent American Rescue Package (ARP) will ensure that local governments have the revenue they need to fully operate law enforcement, social services, street outreach workers and the full spectrum of responders to violence. Fears of abolishing police departments in the middle of COVID-19 have not come to fruition. The ARP even includes a provision that allows cities to use Medicaid dollars to operate community-based mobile crisis intervention units — a creative new way to fund non-police violence-reduction strategies.

We’re also seeing lawmakers refuse to take the bait on fear-driven calls for a return to ineffective punitive strategies. The Harris County commissioners court, for example, continues to stand by its misdemeanor bail reforms. And the Harris County Justice Administration Department is even discussing the launch of new, evidence-based violence interruption and prevention programs.

Like watching a tanker move through the Houston Ship Channel, crime rates don’t turn around quickly. That’s one reason why last year’s sudden spike in homicides was so shocking — and scary. But with the right policies and a sense of urgency of elected officials, we can begin to reverse this violent trend.

Evan Mintz develops communications for Arnold Ventures’ Criminal Justice team. He previously served as deputy opinion editor for the Houston Chronicle.

Evan Mintz
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