How bad is the rise in US homicides? Factchecking the ‘crime wave’ narrative police are pushing

Homicides were up across the US in 2020 and appeared to be primarily driven by rising gun violence, but other crimes fell

By Lois Beckett and Abene' Clayton | The Guardian | June 30, 2021

A vigil for the victims of a shooting in San Jose, California, on 27 May 2021. Photograph: Amy Osborne/AFP/Getty Images

There’s been a wave of media coverage this summer about an increase in homicides across the United States, with attention often focused on the same political question: will Americans still want to defund or even reform the police if “violent crime” is on the rise?

Anxiety about violent crime is often used to win elections. Police and politicians routinely share misleading, out-of-context crime statistics to advance their agendas. Fearmongering about rising crime has also been used for decades to undermine Black Americans’ protests for civil rights. So it’s important to ask: is this homicide increase actually significant? And how much evidence is there for any of the explanations about why killings are going up?

The numbers

After decades of a primarily downward trend in the overall number of people killed, crime experts say they expect 2020 will mark the biggest single-year national jump in homicides since national crime statistics began to be released in the 1960s.

A preliminary government estimate shows a 25% single-year increase in killings in 2020. In some larger cities, the number of homicides has remained higher than usual through the early months of 2021.

While official national crime data will not be released for months, some trends are clear. The 2020 homicide increase happened across cities and towns of all sizes, from those with fewer than 10,000 residents to those with more than a million, according to preliminary FBI data.

The rise in homicides likely translated into an additional 4,000 to 5,000 people killed across the country compared with the year before, according to early estimates.

A rise in murders, not a rise in crime It’s murders, specifically, that increased in 2020, even as many other crimes fell, according to preliminary FBI data

  • 25% - estimated increase in murders in 2020

  • -10.4% - estimated decrease in robberies

  • -7.9% - estimated decrease in property crimes

  • -14.2 - estimated decrease in rapes

  • 3% - estimated increase in overall violent crime

It was an especially hard year for cities that have never seen decreases in gun violence to match the overall national trend. Philadelphia and St Louis returned close to their historic highs for the number of people killed in a single year, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer and the St Louis Post-Dispatch. Chicago, which had seen homicides fall below 500 in the early 2010s, saw them jump to 770 in 2020, though not to its historic 1974 high of 970 homicides, according to the Chicago Tribune.

It does not take a huge numerical increase in killings to translate into big percentage increases in a city’s homicide rate. Chicago, a city of 2.7 million people, s