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During The Pandemic, The FBI Says Murders Surged In The U.S.


New data from the FBI shows the number of homicides in the U.S. rose about 30% in 2020 from the year before, although the homicide rate is still lower in this country than it was in the 1990s. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been looking into what's going on. Good morning, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So what does the FBI crime data tell us exactly?

LUCAS: Well, the headline here is pretty sobering. The data showed 21,570 murders in 2020. That's 4,900 more than in 2019. As you said at the top, that's almost a 30% year-on-year increase. Richard Rosenfeld is a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Here's what he had to say about that.

RICHARD ROSENFELD: That's historically unprecedented. A percentage increase of that magnitude in a single year has simply never been recorded to my knowledge. So that's very troubling.

LUCAS: So the spike in murders, of course, is bad, but there is a little bit of good news here, too. Not all violent crime increased. Robberies, for example, were down. Property crimes, which accounts for most crime in the U.S., dropped by 8% in 2020, and that continues a long-running downward trend. But that spike in murders - it's glaring, it's jarring and it, of course, is a serious problem.

KING: Does anyone know why it happened?

LUCAS: Well, it's difficult to attribute causality because it's often local factors that drive crime, and we're talking about nationwide statistics here. Now, 2020 was unusual in that two things really did touch every community in the country - the pandemic and the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd. And those two things coincided with a dramatic increase in murders. Researchers say that certainly points to some sort of connection.

But Rosenfeld said several things could have contributed here - economic hardship caused by COVID-19, police pulling back because of the pandemic, trust in the police cratering in many communities because of Floyd's killing, and also research shows that more people were carrying firearms in public. And the FBI data show a gun of some sort was used in around 77% of these murders, which is the highest number on record. So all of these things could factor in, but, again, their exact connection is still unclear.

KING: You make this interesting point that the pandemic and civil unrest affected the entire country. Did homicides rise in the entire country?

LUCAS: According to the FBI data, they did. This was very much a nationwide thing. Murders were up in small towns and big cities and everything, really, in between. And that's a shift from what happened back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, big cities like New York and Los Angeles were driving the national murder rate. In 2020, it really was happening everywhere. But, look; the homicide rate and the crime rate overall, even with this spike in 2020, is still significantly lower than it was in the 1990s.

KING: And what about this year? Are murders up in 2021 compared to last year?

LUCAS: Well, we don't have FBI data for 2021, and we won't until next September. But Rosenfeld has compiled preliminary data from several dozen big cities. Here's what he said.

ROSENFELD: We're beginning to see is that that homicide increase that began last year - it has not disappeared, but it is - or it does appear to be subsiding.

LUCAS: He said the data show a 16% increase in murder in the first six months of 2021, which isn't great, but of course, it's less than 30%. And that, he said, is at least a small cause for optimism.

KING: OK. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.