The United States homicide rate continues to soar in 2021. Why?
‘Shock to the system’ from COVID-19, George Floyd protests, rising gun crime, poverty and racism are seen as root causes.
Thirteen people were shot and killed in the United States during the Halloween weekend as an unrelenting spate of gun violence and deaths continues sweeping the United States.
Two people were killed and 12 injured in a suburb of Chicago when men with guns opened fire on a late-night costume party, according to local news. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, police were investigating a shooting incident that left two dead and four injured.
The death toll is typical. Last week in Boise, Idaho, a lone gunman killed two at a shopping mall and injured several others before dying in an exchange of gunfire with police.
Homicides in the US are surging in 2021 after jumping to 19,400 in 2020, on a wave of gun violence, sending criminologists searching for answers and local leaders and US policymakers scrambling for solutions.
“It really surged immediately after the murder of George Floyd,” said Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, a non-partisan organisation that advocates for reforms. “It’s sort of a perfect storm.”
Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed while being arrested by Minneapolis police on May 25, 2020. Video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin choking Floyd by kneeling on his neck went viral and US cities erupted in anti-police protests.
The numbers from major US cities are grim. Chicago, the US’s third-largest city, is on pace to have its worst murder rate in 25 years, with 649 people killed as of mid-October.
In Houston, the US’s fourth-largest city, police have tracked 339 homicides so far this year, an increase over last year’s rate of killings. The nation’s capital, Washington, DC, with 183 killed so far this year, will surpass last year’s murder toll if killings continue at the same pace.
The rising trend in homicides in 2021 holds in smaller cities, as well. The increases this year come on top of a 30 percent rise in murders across the US in 2020, officially reported by the FBI last month.
Fallout from the Floyd protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with easy access to illegal guns, are most often blamed for the rising homicide rate, but there are risks to drawing conclusions from short-term crime statistics and the underlying sociological forces at work are complex, experts said.
Black and brown communities
One of the troubling aspects of the spike in murders is that is disproportionately hitting poor and minority communities.
“This has been an ongoing issue for years where Black and brown communities have continued to feel the devastation of gun violence,” said Ciera Bates-Chamberlain, executive director of Live Free Illinois, a group that works to foster safety in Chicago and other Illinois cities.
“The more important piece is to get at the real cause of homicides, and the root cause of gun violence in communities, which is racism and poverty,” Bates-Chamberlain told Al Jazeera.
Suffering a particularly violent year, Philadelphia has seen homicides surpass 450, putting the city on track to match last year’s count of 499 killings.
“There’s going to be no single cause for the drastic and significant increase in homicide. But increasingly, it’s clear that there are two or three main factors,” said Jerry Ratcliffe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Even before Floyd was killed, the coronavirus pandemic had taken hold in the US, forcing police across the country to reduce contact with the public.
COVID-19 has presented a continuing life-threatening risk for police across the US. More than 240 law enforcement officers have died of COVID-19 this year, nearly five times the number – 50 – killed by gunfire, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
Philadelphia was among a number of jurisdictions in 2020 that placed a moratorium on police making arrests for mid- to low-level crimes to reduce contact between police and the public and avoid transmission of the COVID-19 virus.
“There is there a significant body of research evidence that suggests that proactive policing is effective at reducing crime,” Ratcliffe said.
Police Backed Off
Add to COVID-19, the reality that police in major US cities backed away from making arrests following the George Floyd protests.
In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, police abruptly adopted a hands-off approach after the protests, according to a study of arrest data by the Reuters news service. At the same time, killings in the city surged to 82 homicides in 2020 and are on pace this year to break that number with 78 as of October.
“Police are receiving signals explicitly through managerial choices, or implicitly through from social media and the community,” Ratcliffe said.
In Portland, Oregon, more than 200 officers have quit in the past year and a half, many citing poor morale and lack of support from superiors. Portland recorded 63 homicides so far this year, surpassing last year’s toll of 57.
It’s a trend seen elsewhere. Dozens of police have resigned from the force in Albuquerque, New Mexico, following protests. And the city has experienced an alarming record of 89 homicides this year, amid a level of violence not seen since the 1980s.
To be sure, while it is tempting draw a connection between de-policing and rising homicides, concluding one is caused the other would be wrong, said Scott Hechinger, a civil rights lawyer and former public defender in Brooklyn, New York.
“The idea that the protests following George Floyd are responsible for the rise in homicides is based on a range of lies, deceptions and misconceptions,” Hechinger told Al Jazeera.
Homicides have increased across the US, not just in places where there were protests or where police morale has been poor, Hechinger said.
“Beyond the fact that short-run data is notoriously volatile, what the data actually shows us is, there’s no way to draw that kind of causation because it happened everywhere.”
Still, some criminologists identify a larger pattern of a “legitimacy crisis” surrounding the police, courts and the prison system. People who live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods where crime is already high, do not view the police as legitimate.
Indeed, police abuse and neglect had already been a concern in African American communities for years. But Floyd’s killing proved to be “the straw that broke the camel’s back” said Scott Wolfe, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State.
People who are already likely to commit violent crimes see the police as “gatekeepers of the justice system that can’t even follow the law themselves” and conclude “why should I obey the law?” Wolfe said.
Wolfe and two colleagues conducted a study of the city of Denver’s devastating 50 percent rise in homicides in 2020 and concluded the evidence points to a crisis of distrust caused by unjust treatment within the criminal justice system.
Denver was racked by protests in 2019 after Elijah McClain, an unarmed, 23-year-old Black man, died in a Denver suburb after he was put in a chokehold and injected with ketamine by police.
These kinds of events create an environment in which victims do not trust the police, and do not call for help, said David Pyrooz, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado-Boulder who studied Denver’s experience with Wolfe.
“There’s been this shock to the system,” Pyrooz told Al Jazeera. “That shock sets off this chain of events that changes police behaviour, changes citizen behaviour in a way that is more conducive to crime.”