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America’s sharp rise in crime tied to pandemic, protest movement


Mounting concern over crime has reportedly reached the highest level in four years amid an increase in homicides and a general spike in violent crime.

President Joe Biden in June laid out an anti-crime strategy in focusing on gun crime as part of an effort to stem the rise in murders. His plan would also allow communities to use coronavirus relief funds to hire more police officers or to engage in other crime prevention methods. Biden admitted, however, that “there is no one…answer that fits everything.”

Police reform legislation remains elusive

The new plan has placed the White House at the forefront of a delicate issue that has at times frustrated lawmakers — notably the Democratic Party — in the past and still carries with it political consequences for the future. Last month, bipartisan congressional negotiators conceded that an agreement on police reform legislation remained elusive after about four months of discussion. Looming midterm elections may threaten to make progress in this issue even more contentious.

ABC News conducted a poll late last month revealing that Biden has slightly negative numbers regarding the crime issue. While about 35 percent of Americans say they trust the Democrats to do a better job on crime, 36 percent of respondents trust Republicans. Twenty percent don’t believe either party can get a handle on the rising crime rate.

Racial differences apparent

in rising crime rate

As usual with any socio-political polling, racial differences were apparent. Sixty percent of White adults said increased police funding would reduce violent crime. This compares with 50 percent of Latino adults and 39 percent of Black adults. Among African-Americans, more than seven in 10 respondents said violent crime could be reduced by enacting stricter gun laws along with more stringent enforcement of existing gun laws. More than eight in 10 African-Americans said funding for economic opportunities for underserved communities (i.e. job training/placement) would be effective in preventing another generation of inner-city murders.

Some crimes, mostly shootings and homicides, are up in many cities. However, this surge may represent a very small percentage of violent crime and an even smaller part of total crime. Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist and professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has suggested that police are frustrated with rising animosity and might be pulling back. As well, some communities may be so distrustful of police that members are taking vigilante justice into their own hands.

Crime and socioeconomics

“While homicides and shootings have been rising, property crimes and burglaries are down or steady in many cities,” Rosenfeld said. “What we’ve been seeing is just across-the-board increases. We’ve continued to see this — roughly speaking — through the first half of this year. What is not being reported are the large number of cities not showing big increases or indeed actually showing declines over last year.”

Crime is also connected to any economic crisis. The pandemic’s economic consequences — unemployment, housing insecurity, food shortages — may have contributed to rising crime rates. The rise, though, remains significantly lower than the historical peak in crime in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Criminologists generally agree there hasn’t been any significant changes in the past 10 years in the frequency of serious assaults in public (contrary to the concerns of policy makers) or any change to the frequency of assaults in residences. Some cities have witnessed reductions in residential burglary, but little change in non-residential burglary. The same can be said of vehicle theft.

Record number of firearms purchased

California has been grappling with the crime increase since the beginning of the pandemic. Los Angeles has witnessed a sharp rise in violent crime and property crime. Citizens here and nationally are trying to fight back against the crime wave by purchasing a record number of firearms.

This month, California Attorney General Rob Bonta released statewide 2020 gun sales data which showed a record increase in the number of handguns legally sold in the state. Gun sales statewide increased 65.5 percent last year, from 414,705 sales in 2019 to 686,435 in 2020. Last year, the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background check system processed a record 39.7 million background checks — up from 28.4 in 2019.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the rise in crime presents an “existential threat” particularly with the passage of “poorly conceived” criminal justice reform. With a reported 36-percent increase overall in violent crime over the past year and a half, Villanueva said the numbers are “huge and very, very troublesome.” His department has had to cut 1,310 positions in the past year after the budget was cut by $145 million. Another $143 million in cuts are said to be forthcoming.

Villanueva has been a vocal opponent of Measure J, a county referendum passed in 2020 to provide “alternatives to incarceration” and fight “racial injustice” through 10 percent of the county’s budget.

Some of America’s leading gun violence researchers have concluded that what might seem like an obvious cause-and-effect — a surge in gun buying leads to a surge in gun violence — is not supported by the data. A study published this month in Injury Epidemiology (a scientific journal often used by insurance companies and actuaries) suggested that policy makers should be looking at other factors like job loss, economic change, school closures and sporadic incidents of civil unrest in order to understand last year’s increase in gun violence.

‘Soft on crime’ accusation

“Gun violence is an epidemic in this country,” Bonta said. “We are fortunate in California to have common sense gun laws that help combat the epidemic and keep the public safe.”

Bonta pointed to California having the lowest firearm mortality rate in the nation in emphasizing that “our laws work.” Local gun sales, he said, do not always translate into violent incidents, “but they are a reminder of the importance” of California’s gun laws, including the state’s red flag laws that allow family members, employers, coworkers and school employees to petition a court to prohibit a person they believe poses a danger to themselves or others from possessing a firearm.

While the homicide rate across big cities remains close to half of what it was in the 1990s, some politicians have used the single-year jump in killings to paint Democrats and the Biden administration as “soft on crime.” UC Davis operates a Violence Prevention Research program where researchers conducted a study earlier this year that raised doubts about a correlation between last year’s spike in gun purchases and increases in shootings.

Increase in California homicides

UC Davis researchers found that California cities generally did better than those in other states which saw bigger per capita increases in homicides and aggravated assaults. Yet last year, California had nearly 300 more homicides than the next most deadly year in the last decade — 2016. That year saw 1,930 slayings.

The increase in victims appears to be concentrated among Black and Latino men in their 20s and 30s and does not appear to be driven by a pandemic-related increase in domestic violence. Nearly three-quarters of 2020 homicides involved a firearm, up from 69 percent a year earlier. Calls to 911 for domestic violence involving a firearm rose 42 percent last year.

The debate across political lines apparently does not take into account the underlying risk of easy access to guns in the United States. The increase in shootings last year may have been driven by Americans who already owned guns before the pandemic, and not by the people who bought guns for the first time last year.

Did pandemic affect murder rate?

Separate reports from the FBI and from the Council on Criminal Justice suggest that while the split between murder rates and crime rates might seem odd, a possible reason was because, last year, there were fewer opportunities to commit property crimes with businesses shut down and people staying at home.

The analysis from both studies tend to confirm that the pandemic may also have affected murder rates. The pandemic effectively shut down programs that likely safeguard Americans from violence, including community policing, social services and community-led efforts. It left some people — particularly teen boys and young men — with more free time to stew over interpersonal conflict as workplaces and schools closed temporarily.

The protests over police brutality — which essentially began in 2014 in Ferguson, Mo. over the killing of Michael Brown — swept through cities followed by a rise in murder and sometimes other violence. However, criminologists caution that while several sides in the ensuing debate claimed a “Ferguson effect,”  there has been little to no empirical research conducted to verify such claims.