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July 6, 2020

Puzzling though crime data, practically and politically, in the crazy year that is 2020

This new New York Times piece discusses the latest crime data as we head into the back half of 2020.  The piece's full headline captures its themes: "It’s Been ‘Such a Weird Year.’ That’s Also Reflected in Crime Statistics: In large cities across America, murders are up sharply, while other violent crimes have decreased."  Here are excerpts:

The national numbers for murder and other types of violent crime rarely move in opposite directions. But this is no ordinary year.

Overall crime is down 5.3 percent in 25 large American cities relative to the same period in 2019, with violent crime down 2 percent.

But murder in these 25 cities is up 16.1 percent in relation to last year. It’s not just a handful of cities driving this change, either. Property crime is down in 18 of the 25 sampled cities, and violent crime is down in 11 of them, but murder is up in 20 of the cities....

Homicides usually rise in the summer, which coincided this year with many people emerging from pandemic lockdown. In one recent weekend in Chicago, 14 people were killed and at least 106 people were shot, the most in eight years. And as The New York Times reported recently: “It has been nearly a quarter century since New York City experienced as much gun violence in the month of June as it has seen this year.” (On Sunday night, the city reportedly had nine killings in the previous 24 hours.)

An additional 17 cities provide year-to-date murder data. Murder is up 21.8 percent in all 36 cities with 2020 data through at least May, with 29 of those cities seeing an increase this year relative to last year.

How often do murder and other types of violent crime move in opposite directions? There have been only four years since 1960 (1993, 2000, 2002 and 2003) when murder increased but overall violent crime decreased nationally, and the increase in murder was small in each of those years. The average absolute difference between the national change in murder and violent crime since 1990 has been just 2.2 percent, so a big increase in murder nationally while violent crime falls is almost unheard-of.

But this year has been distinct in many ways, because of the pandemic and because of the protests and civil unrest after the death of George Floyd in police custody. Jerry Ratcliffe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University and host of the Reducing Crime podcast, has cautioned against comparing crime figures in one year with the previous year. This year’s upheaval may be even more reason to be cautious.

Identifying the trend in murder statistics is relatively easy. Understanding why it is happening and what can be done about it is much harder. Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and C.E.O. of the Center for Policing Equity, points to increased domestic violence as one possible cause of the increase in murder. “The first explanation that I have is that this comes from people being locked inside (during quarantines) and a lack of social services,” he said. “All those things are things that we would expect to lead to higher rates of violence. That’s speculation, though. I have no evidence that that’s the right thing other than the rise in calls for domestic violence.”

Mr. Ratcliffe agrees that increased domestic violence may be playing a role. He also hypothesizes that “Covid-19 could have reduced the market and opportunities for recreational drug use/dealing, which puts stress on the drug markets and increases violence.”

“If that is one of the causes, then we might see those tensions ease as lockdowns are relieved,” he said.

Jennifer Doleac, associate professor of economics and director of the Justice Tech Lab at Texas A&M, said: “People are worried about increasing domestic violence, and that could certainly lead to increases in homicide. Any kind of crime where most of it is between strangers or requires people being out and about would be down, and homicide is usually between people who know each other, so it might be affected differently.”

It’s plausible that the increase in murder this year might reflect a trend that began before the pandemic got underway. A review of the percent change in murder in 10 cities before coronavirus struck (generally defined as through February or March) and those cities’ most recent June update for the year so far shows a worse year-to-date percent change in eight of them, suggesting that the trend may have accelerated over the last few months....

Some research suggests that a loss of trust in law enforcement can cause citizens to be reluctant to contact the police, and people may be more likely to take justice into their own hands to resolve disputes.

It’s important to keep the rise in historical perspective. Murder in New York was up 25 percent compared with last year as of June 14, but that total was the same one the city had in 2015. Murder is up 22 percent in Chicago, but it’s down 6 percent from where it was at this time in 2017. Murder is up 42 percent in New Orleans, but a year ago murder was its lowest point there in almost half a century.

“These numbers do not tell a story that supports any ideological side of the debate around policing,” Mr. Goff said. “What it supports at most is a need for rigorous curiosity about a vital issue.” Ms. Doleac also says it is too early to draw any firm conclusions: “This is such a weird year in so many dimensions, and it’s going to take us a while to figure out what caused any of these differences in crime. It is perfectly reasonable to think the first half of this year may not tell us what the rest of the year will look like.”...

“The reality is that we just don’t know” what’s driving the change in murder, Mr. Goff said, “and it’s not a straightforward process to figure it out.”

Notably, Prez Trump already has released a campaign ad seeking to tie police reform efforts to increased crime. If homicide numbers keep going up and up in big cities like New York and Chicago, I would expect the Trump campaign to continue to try to stoke up fear of crime and continue to claim that he is the only "law and order" candidate.  That political playbook worked pretty well for Richard Nixon in 1968 and for George H.W. Bush in 1988, and the next few months will show if it can work for Donald Trump.

One final macabre observation: as I reflect on crime data circa July 2020, I am finding that the COVID pandemic skews my perspective on some of the numbers.  These crime data on New York City reports 176 murders in roughly the first six months of 2020 compared to 143 murders during the same period in 2019.  While that is a troubling 23% increase in NYC murders for the first half of the year, it is still well less than half of the 500+ daily deaths from COVID that NYC experienced in early April. Though there are lots of problems with comparing data on homicides and COVID deaths, I am finding that the grim COVID death data that we are all still processing make even elevated homicide numbers look not quite as frightening.  Of course, a global pandemic should not make us complacent about crime, but I am still struck by how the reality and reactions to crime is always going to be contextual and contingent.

Prior related posts:

July 6, 2020 at 10:18 AM | Permalink

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