The United States saw the largest increase in murder rates in 2020 since national record keeping began in 1960, according to data collected by the FBI for its annual crime report.
The Uniform Crime Report will be the official word of an unusually dark year, detailing an increase in murders of around 29%. The previous most significant year-over-year change was a 12.7% increase in 1968. The national rate – murders per 100,000 – is still about a third lower than the rate of the early 1990s.
The data is expected to be released on Monday with a press release, but it was released early by the FBI Criminal data explorer website.
The FBI said some numbers could change by Monday as it examines possible deviations and receives updates. But the main conclusions of the data are very unlikely to change.
Separately, an independent analysis of the big cities finds at least one promising sign that the murder rate may start to flatten this year: The increase in murders this summer does not appear to be as large as the record high last summer. .
Here are the top takeaways from crime data for 2020 along with the best evidence for the situation so far in 2021.
The increase in killings was national, not regional
Previously, the largest year-over-year increase in the total number of murders was 1,938 in 1990. FBI data shows nearly 5,000 more murders last year than in 2019, for a total of about 21,500 (still below the particularly violent era of the early 1990s).
The reasons for the increase may never be fully elucidated, but analysts have highlighted many possible contributing factors, including various pandemic stresses; increased mistrust between the police and the public after the murder of George Floyd, including a withdrawal of the police in response to criticism; and increase in the number of firearms.
About 77% of reported murders in 2020 were committed with a firearm, the highest share ever reported, down from 67% a decade ago.
The change in murder was widespread – a national phenomenon, not a regional one. Murders have increased by more than 35% in cities with more than 250,000 inhabitants who have reported full data.
It has also increased by more than 40% in cities of 100,000 to 250,000, and about 25% in cities of less than 25,000.
No geographic area has been spared. The FBI reported in March that murders had risen by at least 20% in all parts of the country, including an increase of about 30% in the Midwest. Overall, murders increased by at least 20% in counties led by Joseph R. Biden Jr. as well as Donald J. Trump in 2020.
One regional factor has remained constant: Louisiana recorded the highest murder rate for the 32nd consecutive year.
Murders were already high in the first months of 2020, then rose dramatically in June and remained high for the rest of the year.
Global crime has fallen
Even with the increase in murders and an increase of about 5% in violent crime, new data shows that all major crimes fell by about 4-5% in 2020.
Murder, although he wears the highest societal cost, represents a tiny fraction of major crimes as defined by the FBI.
Part of the overall crime reduction was clearly linked to the pandemic. Theft accounted for about seven in ten property crimes, and shoplifting is difficult when stores are closed. But overall crime was declining long before the pandemic: 2020 was the 18th consecutive year of decline in overall crime.
Exit of the police officers from the agencies of the big cities
The evidence regarding the employment of the police was mixed. A previous survey of 200 police departments found large increases in retirements between April 2020 and April 2021, while data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed virtually no change in the number of people employed in local police departments.
The new data showed little overall change. But large agencies were much more likely than small ones to report a drop in the number of agents. Newark and New York reported some of the largest percentage declines, New York drop by more than 2,500 agents from 2019 to 2020, according to FBI data.
This data is useful in describing the general trend, but it does not provide an understanding of why some agencies have lost agents. Was it because of low morale and increased difficulties getting the job done, or has retirements increased because the increase in overtime in 2020 made it a more attractive prospect?
Or maybe some agencies have lost agents overall because the pandemic has made hiring replacements particularly difficult. These questions remain unanswered in the DUC data.
The murder is still relevant in 2021
The testimonials from big cities suggests that murders are still on the rise in 2021 compared to 2020, although the increase is not as large. My data collection from 87 cities with publicly available year-to-date data shows murders increased 9.9% from comparable points in 2020.
Some cities such as Portland, Oregon and Las Vegas are recording large increases compared to last year; some large cities such as Chicago and New York are recording stable figures after significant increases in 2020; and places like St. Louis (which had the highest murder rate in the country in 2020) are seeing big drops.
The first half of this year largely followed the pattern started in the second half of last year. The rate of increase in murders appears to be slowing as more cities that saw large increases from last summer start reporting data for this summer.
Held due to lack of data
The picture for 2021 is made cloudier by less data.
The FBI has released national estimates of the UCR program every year since 1960, but it switches to a new crime reporting system next year.
Last year, the FBI began releasing quarterly crime updates, but this year it did not produce national updates for the first or second quarter because too few agencies have submitted data. This Probably reflects struggles among law enforcement agencies nationwide to switch to the new system, called NIBRS, which is expected to provide more information on a wider range of crimes at the local and national levels. In 2020, less than 10,000 over 18,000 participating agencies submitted data via NIBRS.
As crime analysts have noted for years, the United States lacks a timely data collection system to quickly estimate crime trends. The FBI does not release official annual statistics until nine months after the end of the previous year.
During this period of transition between reporting systems and during this period of high shootings and killings, the data is getting worse, not better.
Jeff Asher is a New Orleans-based criminal analyst and co-founder of AH Datalytics. You can follow him on Twitter at @Crimealytics.