Weekend Long Reads: What Impact Did COVID-19 Have on Crime?

by Kevin Schofield

This week’s long read poses the question, “What was the effect of COVID-19 and social unrest on crime in U.S. cities last year?”

The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice commissioned a report by the Council on Criminal Justice and two University of Missouri researchers to look at crime rates in 2020 and try to find explanations. In particular, the researchers focused on the widely reported increase in homicides. The research team collected crime data, where available, from 34 U.S. cities including Seattle as the basis for their analysis.

Homicides saw a big spike in 2020: they were up 30% compared to the previous year in the cities represented in the study. As with many other types of crime, homicides typically peak in the summer months. The peak last summer was dramatically higher than recent years, though homicide rates were higher throughout the year.

Source: Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities 2020 Year-End Update

Homicides weren’t the only crime that rose last year: there were also increases in aggravated assault (+6%) and motor vehicle theft (+13%). Gun assaults have steadily increased for the past few years, and that trend continued (+8%).

Source: Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities 2020 Year-End Update

Somewhat surprisingly, the researchers did not find evidence of an increase in domestic violence last year. Many experts predicted that the COVID lockdowns would lead to an increase. However, the researchers caution that the data here may be unreliable, since the lockdowns may have made it more difficult for victims to report domestic violence crimes and because only twelve of the 34 cities had data available.

Source: Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities 2020 Year-End Update

At the same time, several categories of crime declined last year. The biggest decrease was for drug offenses, which dropped 30%. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, residential burglaries dropped by 24% (since everyone was staying home), while non-residential burglaries dropped only slightly — continuing a multi-year downward trend.

Source: Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities 2020 Year-End Update

The researchers then dove into the bigger question: why, particularly for homicides? 

It’s easy to connect the dots between COVID and some of the changes, such as the drop in residential burglaries, but it’s tougher to see the connection with homicides. First, while COVID hit the whole country hard, there was wide variation in the homicide rate last year. A few of the cities even saw a reduction in homicides.

Source: Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities 2020 Year-End Update

Second, the homicide rate was trending up even in January and February, before the pandemic took hold. The data in fact suggest the opposite, that COVID may have reduced homicides: from March to May, when the most severe COVID restrictions were in place, there were the smallest increases in homicides. On the other hand, many cities proactively reduced their jail populations and reformed their bail practices last year due to COVID, which might have placed more criminals back on the streets. An all, COVID was a mixed bag and it’s unclear what its net effect was on violent crime.

Another interesting connection may be with the protests against police violence, which started right around the time that many of the crime statistics peaked. However, there are problems with suggesting that the protests caused the spikes in homicides. First, homicides spike in June or July every year; last year’s spike was higher than 2019, but so were the numbers for every other month in 2020 compared with the previous year. Second, what the data shows is correlation, not causation: just because they happened at the same time doesn’t mean that one caused the other. 

The researchers don’t come to any conclusions as to what caused the increase in homicides, but they do suggest a few other factors that might play a part — or might not. Did the intense criticism of the police lead to “de-policing” by police departments, where officers pull back on proactive law enforcement by officers? Or did it “de-legitimize” the police such that communities drew away from them due to lack of trust and confidence? The researchers also wonder whether the multi-year trend in increases of firearm purchases could be a more significant driver of homicides and gun crimes. 

The report concludes with some recommendations to address the homicide rate. First, it argues that subduing the pandemic must be a top priority, as it is currently preventing outreach to individuals at highest risk of violence and entering the criminal justice system. Second, it suggests that criminal justice reform, especially in policing, is critical. And finally, it points to a list of recommendations of proven anti-violence strategies that cities should deploy.

The report is full of interesting statistical charts that clearly show both the overall trends and the seasonality of crime statistics — as well as how different 2020 was from the norm.

Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities: 2020 Year-end Update

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

Featured image is attributed to dmbosstone under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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