Stop Blaming the Pandemic for America's Violent Crime Wave

The pandemic happened everywhere. The surge in violence appears to be uniquely American.

America is seeing an enormous surge in violent crime, particularly shootings and homicides. Some states are seeing the highest levels of murders in decades; other localities are on their way to having their deadliest year ever.

One explanation commonly offered for this violence is that it’s the consequence of the pandemic. We did, after all, live through one of the most disorienting events of the 21st century, as a lethal virus spread across the globe and governments responded by shutting down much of commercial life (and in some places, schools).

Many media outlets have gone with this narrative, interviewing subject matter experts who tie the pandemic to the violence:

In New York City, where murders went up nearly 40% from the previous year, Mayor Bill DeBlasio suggested that this increase is “clearly related, in part, to the coronavirus and to the fact that people are cooped up.”

But there’s a time every year when people are cooped up. It’s called winter. As harsh weather forces people indoors, we actually typically see fewer murders, not more. More people tend to to be killed on hot days, with that surge typically driven by homicides taking place outside.

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That doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to the idea that COVID-19 could’ve impacted crime rates, but the relationship isn’t the one DeBlasio is hinting at. A few days ago, Nature Human Behavior published a paper studying of the impact of the stay-at-home orders imposed worldwide to combat the pandemic. What they found was that “more stringent restrictions over movement in public space were predictive of larger declines in crime.” (Although it should be noted the weakest relationship was to rates of homicide.)

While murders were surging all over the United States, our neighbors to the north — Canadians, who live in the country that is socially and culturally most analogous to our own — saw no similar large jump. Canada had 680 homicides in 2020, up just a little from 676 in 2019. Mexico, one country to our south, saw a 0.4% decline in murders last year.

El Salvador, one of the murder capitals of the world, saw its homicide rate drop to a historic low. At least some decline in homicide was recorded in much of the world.

All of these countries also experienced the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of them saw similar measures deployed to ameliorate its impact, including lockdowns and stay at home orders. And we here in the United States are emerging from the pandemic much more rapidly than most of the world, thanks to our rapid development and acquisition of vaccines.

Yet we seem to be stuck with a stubborn wave of violence that continues to plague America’s streets. In Los Angeles, for instance, 600 people have been victimized by shootings this year, compared to around 378 last year.

So what is happening? Why are American homicides reaching 1990’s levels in parts of this country? I don’t think we have the data to draw a definitive conclusion, but there isn’t a lot of evidence for the pandemic thesis.

What we do know is that we’ve seen massive spikes in murder a few cities in recent history. They happened after a viral incident of police abuse followed by a government investigation. The Harvard economist Roland Freyer studied the case of five cities where that combination events led first to a pullback of proactive policing — police getting out there less and making fewer stops — and then a huge surge of killings.

Over the past year, it’s possible that we’ve seen that sort of effect on a nationwide scale. Police, increasingly worried that they’ll face protests, investigations, or prosecution even for doing their job correctly, are pulling back from proactive policing. That’s the conclusion of a paper by Paul Cassell, who calls this the “Minneapolis Effect,” because it kicked in after the death of George Floyd. But Cassell’s paper looked only at de-policing over a couple months: June and July 2020. We need more comprehensive data to really understand what’s been going on.

What is clear is that the big increase in violence we saw last year appears here to stay, which is not surprising. Particularly when murders go unsolved, we see cycles of violence as friends and family take accountability into their own hands.

As anti-violence specialists like Cure Violence advise, violence is like a disease. If you don’t interrupt and contain it, it will continue to spread. And right now, our government at basically every level is failing to stop this virus. We won’t be any more successful unless we start more seriously investigating why it’s happening.

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