Many journalists continue to blame America’s 2020 murder spike on COVID-19, as if the stress of the lockdowns and economic disruption prompted people to lash out in homicidal rage. But does the pandemic really account for the eruption of bloodshed we have experienced?
Mostly false or misleading. Significant errors or omissions. Mostly make believe.
According to a study of 34 U.S. cities by crime researchers Richard Rosenfeld and Ernesto Lopez of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and Thomas Abt of the Council on Criminal Justice, the historic spike in murders did not begin at the height of the lockdowns in late March, April, or early May 2020. It began after the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
“Homicide rates were higher during every month of 2020 relative to rates from the previous year,” Rosenfeld, Lopez, and Abt noted. “That said, rates increased significantly in June, well after the pandemic began, coinciding with the death of George Floyd and the mass protests that followed.”
Floyd’s death ignited not only mass protests, but also deadly riots and fierce condemnations of policing as discriminatory. All of this served to demoralize the men and women who serve in law enforcement, discourage proactive policing, and embolden criminals. The result was a more intense and far-reaching version of what happened in many U.S. cities following the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., or what happened in Baltimore following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray: a police pullback, followed by an explosion of murders and shootings.
“A close analysis of the emerging crime patterns suggests that American cities may be witnessing significant declines in some forms of policing, which in turn is producing the homicide spikes,” University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell wrote last year. “Crime rates are increasing only for a few specific categories—namely homicides and shootings. These crime categories are particularly responsive to reductions in proactive policing. The data also pinpoint the timing of the spikes to late May 2020, which corresponds with the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis and subsequent anti-police protests—protests that likely led to declines in law enforcement.”
In St. Louis, for example, murders were actually below 2019 levels through the first several months of the year, before skyrocketing in June and July.
“By the end of May 2020, we were down five UCR [Uniform Crime Reporting] homicides Year-To-Date, compared to 2019, and things seemed to be trending in the right direction,” St. Louis Police Commissioner John Hayden wrote in the department’s 2020 annual report. “Unfortunately, by the end of July our UCR homicide numbers rose to 30 more than the same time in 2019.”
In New York, murders and shooting incidents were up by only about 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively, through the end of April 2020. By the end of July, they were up by 30 percent and 72 percent.
In Chicago, murders and shootings were up by about 8 percent and 16 percent, respectively, through the first four months of 2020. By the end of July, they were up by 51 percent and 47 percent.
The protracted COVID lockdowns, and especially the protracted school closures, were clearly a mistake. But they don’t come close to explaining the unprecedented increase in murders that America witnessed in 2020.
Read more: Stopping the Epidemic of Violence in American Cities