Pandemic Murder Wave Has Crested. Here’s the Postmortem.

 

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The shocking rise in murders that began in the summer of 2020 looks as if it may have played out. In the nearly complete tally of 2022 homicide statistics from 93 US cities compiled by AH Datalytics, murder and non-negligent manslaughter was down 5% from the year before.

In the absence of full national data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which may never be available in reliable form given the continuing debacle that is the agency’s new National Incident Based Reporting System, such partial accounts are all we have to go by. At least they all more or less agree: For the 70 US city and county law enforcement agencies that report to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the 2022 homicide decline was 5.4%. In national mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that appears to be complete through July, homicides were down 4.6% in the first seven months of the year from the same period in 2021.

There were still many more people murdered in the US in 2022 than before the pandemic in 2019 — going by the AH Datalytics estimates it was 4,764, or 28.7%, more. Murder rates are also much, much higher in the US than in other wealthy nations. But with weekly crime statistics from the three biggest US cities showing a continuing and possibly accelerating murder decline so far in 2023, it does look as if a return to the awful conditions of the 1970s through early 1990s probably isn’t in the cards.

Explaining why murders went up in 2020 and why they’re going down now is something I don’t think anyone should do with great confidence at this point, but the 2022 decline does lend credence to the argument that the pandemic, and all the disruption that accompanied it, was a leading cause. Sorting through other possible explanations such as a “Ferguson effect” from police brutality and protests against it, reductions in police presence because of funding cuts, or changes in sentencing laws and prosecutorial approaches requires looking at individual cities. Here is what has happened in the 50 largest.(1)

One thing that stands out is that some of the cities that have received the most national attention for their recent crime problems — New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco — have relatively low murder rates. Much of that attention, especially in San Francisco, has been on crimes other than murder, and all three cities did experience homicide increases in 2020 that were higher than the national average. But Los Angeles and San Francisco have remained on the safe side for large cities, and New York is on the safe side relative to the entire US.

Among the cities experiencing the biggest murder-rate increases since 2019 are several — Colorado Springs, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Oakland, Portland, Raleigh — that had especially long-running or contentious Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020. This echoes earlier research showing that highly publicized (and protested) police killings tend to be followed by pullbacks in policing and increases in crime. Meanwhile, Austin, with a 99% increase, is the large city that probably did the most to defund its police department, although it has since reversed course. Examining which cities have experienced significant changes in sentencing and bail rules and prosecutorial attitudes since 2019 and which have not is a project for another day (and probably another person), although I would guess that any impact is more likely to show up in rates of crimes other than murder.

By far the largest percentage rise in homicide rates since 2019 has been in the giant Phoenix suburb of Mesa, which was classified by the Pew Research Center in 2014 as the most conservative US city of more than 250,000 residents, is led by a Republican mayor and did not defund its police. Part of the explanation there is simply that it doesn’t take all that many murders (26, to be precise) to cause a 285% jump from 2019’s rate of 1.8 per 100,000 residents, the city’s lowest on record.

The biggest murder-rate decline over the course of the pandemic was in the Texas border city of El Paso, whose already-low homicide rate fell an additional 30%. The huge recent inflow of Rio-Grande-crossing migrants may be overtaxing the city in many ways, but it isn’t causing murders to go up. This echoes earlier research showing that both documented and undocumented immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.

Several high-profile US cities aren’t on the above list because they don’t have enough people — either they’ve lost population over the years or are hemmed in by suburbs. Here are 10 that report crime data to the Major Cities Chiefs Association:

New Orleans has the worst homicide rate of all the cities considered here and experienced one of the biggest increases since 2019, and things kept getting worse there in 2022. St. Louis hasn’t experienced much of an increase but still has the second-highest homicide rate.

Perhaps the most encouraging numbers here are Newark’s. The city’s homicide rate fell during the pandemic and is now half what it was in 2010. Like many of the cities at or near the top of the homicide rankings, Newark is poor and has a large Black population (in 2021, Black people accounted for 13.6% of the US population and 55.9% of the homicide victims, according to the CDC). Unlike a lot of them, it has been succeeding in making its residents’ lives safer.

Still, in 2022 most big US cities did at least succeed in turning the murder tide. Murder isn’t the only crime that matters, of course, but it is the one that is most consistently and reliably measured across jurisdictions and over time. It’s still not entirely clear, for example, whether non-homicide crime even rose nationwide during the pandemic.

It definitely rose in some places, among them the country’s three biggest cities: New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. All three report crime statistics weekly, and as already noted they are experiencing continued declines in homicides in 2023, with a 16.9% drop as of late February in New York, 24% in Los Angeles and 18% in Chicago. In Los Angeles, every other category of crime is declining, too. In New York, the picture is more mixed but mostly positive, with rape, robbery, grand larceny and transit crime down and assault, auto theft and petit larceny up. In Chicago, every crime but homicide is still on the rise. I’m not even going to try to explain those differences.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• In Chicago, High Crime Leads to a Mayor’s Downfall: Editorial

• For Effective Police Reform, Start Small: Stephen L. Carter

• Stolen Guns Are Fueling Violent Crime: Francis Wilkinson

(1) I’ve used 2021 Census Bureau population estimates to calculate 2022 homicide rates for the simple reason that the 2022 city population estimates aren’t out yet, and April 2020 population numbers for 2019 because the 2019 population estimates for some cities were shown to be way off when the 2020 Census results came out. Some of the 2021 rates used in the calculations are different from those in a chart I published in November because here I’ve taken 2021 numbers from the Major Cities Chiefs Association wherever possible. For 2019, I used data from the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer, except for Philadelphia, where the FBI’s numbers are so much lower than those reported by the city police department that I assume they’re wrong. Finally, I followed the Bloomberg News stylebook to determine which cities needed to be accompanied by state abbreviations and which did not.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. A former editorial director of Harvard Business Review, he has written for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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