When murder rates spiked three years ago, experts worried that the U.S. was slipping into a violent era that recalled the period between the 1970s and ’90s. But the data this year offers hope that the increase was temporary.
This year, murders have fallen more than 12 percent in major cities (where recent data is most reliable), after also having fallen slightly last year. The murder rate is still about 10 percent higher than it was in 2019, but at least the trend is going in the right direction.
The declines are a sign that at least two of the issues that likely contributed to the murder spike — Covid and the fallout from George Floyd’s murder — are receding. As much of life has returned to normal after a highly unusual 2020, the crime trends have started to shift back, too.
Policy seems to have played a role as well, as cities have moved to hire more police officers and embraced new anti-violence strategies. Combined, these forces have created the possibility that 2023 will bring one of the largest drops in murder since the U.S. began keeping national statistics more than 60 years ago.
Explaining the drop
Let’s take the three explanations — Covid, Floyd’s death and policy changes — one by one, starting with the pandemic.
Among the many aspects of life that Covid upended were social services that help keep people out of trouble, such as the police, schools, workplaces and addiction treatment. As those services have returned, so have their potentially protective effects.
Some experts are skeptical of the Covid explanation because other countries saw no large increases in murder rates during the pandemic. But Americans have far more guns than their peers around the world, possibly putting them at greater risk for violence when much of society is upended.
The second explanation: More time has passed since Floyd’s death at the hands of the police in 2020 strained relations between law enforcement and their communities.
How does this strain contribute to crime? After high-profile killings, some officers pull back from proactive practices that keep people safe. The public becomes more reluctant to work with the police. And with less confidence in the justice system, some Americans resort instead to violence to resolve conflicts.
These patterns have happened before. Between 2014 and 2016, murders also increased after widely publicized police killings of Black men in Ferguson, Mo.; Baltimore; and elsewhere. This year, Memphis is among a minority of big cities where murders have increased — and Memphis is also where officers were charged in the beating and killing of Tyre Nichols in January. In most cities, though, this dynamic seems to have diminished since 2020.
The third explanation for the murder drop is government policy: Many places have recently invested more in policing and other anti-violence programs. Cities used Covid relief money to bolster their law enforcement ranks, and some have received federal dollars for community-led efforts to break up violence. In Baltimore, a new strategy of focusing policing and other resources on people with a history of violence seems to be paying off, as The Baltimore Banner reported.
What we don’t know
Experts caution that these three explanations are not proven. And it is possible that the rest of the year will be more violent than the first half. “I do think it’s a little premature to be making any strong conclusions about what it all means just yet,” Jeff Asher, a crime analyst who tracks the big-city murder data, told me.
The lack of certainty is typical in discussions about crime. Starting in the 1990s, crime rates plummeted. Yet decades later, after much scholarship, no consensus has emerged for why violence subsided. Crime is an incredibly complicated topic, involving personal disputes, the economy, social services, the political system and more. A few decades, much less a couple of years, is typically too little time to explain a trend definitively.
Still, we do know that murders in big cities have declined since last year. As a result of that decrease, the lives of hundreds of Americans are being spared each month.
A note to readers: David Leonhardt is off this week.
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