Are Cities Really Getting More Violent?

illustration of guns and bullets

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Recent data points to some alarming trends. 

Violent crimes like shootings and murders often make the headlines, but how often are they actually happening? 

After decades of decreasing rates nationwide, an FBI analysis found that violent crime increased by 3 percent in 2020, and that the murder rate rose by 30 percent between 2019 and 2020, to hit the single largest increase since 1905 — or possibly ever. And that’s not all: During the first year of the pandemic, gun deaths surged 35 percent to reach a level not seen since 1994, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But there are plenty of challenges when it comes to understanding this crime data, because this info is notoriously delayed or not even reported at all, as with rape: Only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported. Complicating the matter further is that local police departments also define violent crime in slightly different ways (though generally speaking, the data usually includes murder, robbery, assault, and rape).

To help us make sense of these changing trends, we turned to policy and crime experts to help explain what these shifts mean and which cities are being impacted the most.

How much is violent crime rising?

The Violent Crime Working Group, part of the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice, found a 29 percent increase in homicides from 2019 to 2020, which chairman Thomas Abt calls “the single largest increase in homicide rates that we’ve seen in the past 50 years.” He adds that this doesn’t even factor in the 5 percent increase in murders that were documented from 2020 to 2021. 

Other forms of violent crime are on the rise, too: Aggravated assault increased by 4 percent, while domestic violence increased by nearly as much in roughly 10 cities across the country.

Why is violent crime increasing?

There’s no single answer, but Abt says experts generally agree that it comes down to three main factors. These include enormous stresses brought on by the pandemic, renewed social unrest following the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd, and the surge in gun sales at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak. 

The lack of accountability for those who commit violent crimes could also be a factor. FBI crime data shows that the number of arrests for violent crime made nationwide dropped 24 percent to just over 7 million, marking the lowest number in more than two decades. 

So if crime’s up, why are arrests decreasing? John Jay College Professor Christopher Herrmann, who specializes in criminal justice, told ABC this could have to do with a wave of officers retiring from the force. According to a survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, the retirement rate in police departments spiked 45 percent in 2020 and 2021. 

Is this crime mostly in cities?

Though violent crime has become a national phenomenon (and concern), it remains generally higher in urban areas than in rural or suburban areas. Abt thinks the trend may have a lot to do with the fact that there’s just a higher concentration of people living in cities.

Whether that’s just because people are concentrated there, or because there’s actually more crime and violence per person, I’m not sure,” he tells us. “I suspect a bit of both.”

The data backs this up, with the most stark differences in crime rates being between urban and rural areas. According to a 2014 report by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, 55 percent of rapes, 50 percent of all robberies, and 31 percent of aggravated assaults happened to victims in urban areas. By comparison, 10 percent of rapes and sexual assaults, 6 percent of robberies, and 18 percent of aggravated assaults happened to those in rural areas. 

There are some exceptions, though. For instance, home burglaries were more frequent in rural areas, and aggravated assaults were slightly higher in suburban areas than in cities. 

Which cities are seeing the biggest spikes in violence?

In 2021 alone, at least 12 major U.S. cities, such as Philadelphia and Portland, broke yearly homicide records. Other cities that hit similarly grim milestones include St. Paul, Minnesota; Rochester, New York; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Toledo, Ohio; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Austin, Texas.

Even with these increases elsewhere, Chicago still led the nation with 797 homicides, which is up by 3 percent from the previous year. Still, it certainly isn’t the only major urban area struggling to keep crime in check: New York City recorded 485 murders, and so far, other major crimes like rape and felony assault are already up 38 percent this year

It’s important to keep in mind that these levels are nowhere near those seen in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, New York peaked at roughly 2,605 killings in 1990. 

How much does this violence have to do with guns?

Firearms played a role in 39,740 deaths in 2018 and 39,707 American deaths in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A lot of it has to do with access: There are about 121 firearms in circulation for every 100 Americans, meaning there are more guns than people in the U.S.

The pandemic has only raised the stakes of gun violence. During the first year of the pandemic alone, an estimated 7.5 million Americans became first-time firearm owners, and the latest CDC report found that guns were a factor in 79 percent or 19,350 of all homicides in 2020. These increases disproportionately affected minorities: the rates of gun homicides among young Black men between the ages of 10 to 24 years were 21.6 times higher than their white peers. On top of this, the CDC found that counties with the highest poverty level had firearm homicide and firearm suicide rates that were 4.5 and 1.3 times as high compared to other areas.

“Our reports contain statistics and numbers, but it’s also important to reflect on the individual lives lost,” says Thomas Simon, who’s associate director for science at the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention.

How should rising violence be addressed?

Though gun violence has plagued the U.S. for decades, the way to best approach it remains a heavily debated topic, particularly in the wake of renewed debates over policing.

In response to the surge in violent crime, the Violent Crime Working Group outlined 10 steps that cities can take right now to better support communities. They include everything from investing money and efforts in high-risk neighborhoods, to responding to violence with empathy and accountability. The group also believes that law enforcement and community outreach play a key role in stopping violence from happening in the first place. 

“A tremendous amount of gun violence is retaliatory, where an insult leads to a fight,” Abt tells us. “The fight leads to somebody getting hurt, then somebody gets shot, and then somebody gets killed, so a key issue in interrupting gun violence and addressing it is figuring out these networks and engaging these young men ahead of time.”

What are the political implications of this violence?

Policy experts like Michael Fortner worry that this widespread uptick in violence could lead to the return of harsher enforcement and penalties as ways to reduce crime, as the U.S. saw throughout the 1990s

Fortner is predicting that rising violence will “absolutely” be at the forefront of November’s midterm elections, especially among Black voters. Even before the issue gained renewed attention due to the pandemic, a 2016 poll found that 80 percent of the registered Black voters described gun violence in communities of color as an “extremely serious” problem

Similarly, professor Lisa Miller, who teaches political science at Rutgers University, tells us that voters are aware of rising violence, and warns that political leaders on both sides of the aisle shouldn’t ignore their concerns. 

“Something odd happens when violence is on the rise,” Miller tells us. “There’s an odd temptation to downplay it, and I don’t really understand that. But I can tell you that, from a political perspective, political parties downplay it at their peril, because it is a fundamental issue.”