What Drove Homicide Rates Up?

While overall crime is down in California, murder is on the rise. What’s going on?

PUBLISHED DEC 22, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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Why are homicides on the rise in California? There are several plausible theories.

Why are homicides on the rise in California? There are several plausible theories.   Zoka 74 / Shutterstock   Shutterstock Standard License

In July 2021, the California attorney general’s office released its official report on crime statistics from 2020. It contained one finding that was plastered all over the media, from San Jose’s Mercury News to the Redding Searchlight and national outlets as well. The number that got all the attention: 31 percent. That’s how much homicides went up from 2019 to 2020.

The 2,202 reported California homicides in 2020 were the most since 2008, and the number immediately became political fodder. At the time, Gov. Gavin Newsom was facing what appeared to be a perilous recall election. His only serious opponent, Republican candidate Larry Elder, blamed the 31 percent increase on Newsom’s “soft-on-crime ethos.”

California’s murder rate, however, was typical of an alarming national trend. According to FBI data, the nationwide total of 21,570 homicides was up by almost 30 percent from 2019. The FBI’s count is likely low. The number is based on reports from 85 percent of law enforcement agencies in the country. The other 15 percent—more than 2,700 agencies—did not file their statistics with the FBI.

Homicide Up, Overall Crime Down

The 2020 hike in California homicides was out of step with other types of crime. Even with the surge in killings, overall violent crime rose by a relatively modest 0.8 percent. Robberies dropped by 14 percent and reported rapes by 8 percent—though aggravated assaults bumped up by 9 percent. Property crimes were down by 9 percent and personal property theft, also known as larceny, plunged by 15 percent.

With Newsom running for reelection in 2022, a year when all of California’s United States House reps and one of two senators will also be up for election, homicide seems highly likely to be a campaign issue once again. In 2021, the spike in the grim death toll has shown little sign of slowing. Though no official data will be released until several months into 2022, early numbers from the state’s largest cities continue to paint a bloody picture of a state where murder is becoming more and more common.

By the close of October the state’s largest city, Los Angeles, had already suffered 331 homicides, up 16 percent from the same time period in 2020—the second straight year the city tallied more than 300, a number not reached since 2009. San Diego homicides were up 11 percent, San Francisco’s 7 percent, and in Oakland the killings rose by 38 percent for the first 10 months of 2021 compared to 2020.

Throughout the country, murders were up by 7.5 percent overall, based on numbers collected by independent data researcher Jeff Asher of the firm AH Analytics

One thing that probably won’t come up in the 2022 election campaigns, however, is a solution to this horrifying problem. Why are Californians, and people all over the United States, killing each other at such a startling rate? No one seems to have any real idea.

But that’s nothing new. Murder has been at high levels before, considerably higher than in 2020 and 2021. But no one could fully explain it then either.

Theory: The Numbers Aren’t as As Bad as They Seem

Is the climb in California murders really the cause for alarm that it seems to be? On one level, of course it is—523 more human beings were killed by their fellow human beings in 2021 than the year before in the state. That’s another 523 irreplaceable lives ended, and there’s no getting around that brutal statistic. 

But it may be worth noting that the 2,202 homicides reported in 2020 is a lower one-year total than any year from 1975 to 2008. In the seven consecutive years starting in 1989 and running through 1995, California topped 3,000 murders in every year. The carnage peaked in 1993, a year in which more than 4,000 people in California lost their lives due to the violent actions of another person. Of every 100,000 people in the state, just over 13 were murdered in 1993 alone.

In 2020 the homicide rate per 100,000 residents was 5.5. That's still far too high, but in the context of history a relatively tame figure. The 2019 rate per 100,000 was 4.2.

Murders in 2020 were not evenly distributed throughout the state. Most counties did not experience anything close to a 31 percent increase. In 22 counties with populations under 100,000 the homicide rate was effectively zero—a total of 41 people lost their lives due to homicide across all 22 of those counties in 2021, a percentage of the population so small it isn’t registered in crime rate statistics. Those 41 murders were up by only one compared to 2019’s 40, an increase of just 2.5 percent.

Blood Relatives and Racial Differences

For what it’s worth, the spike in homicides does not reflect an epidemic of random killings, with vast numbers of people being gunned down in the streets. In California, as everywhere, the people who pose the greatest threat to your life are the ones closest to you.

According to the state attorney general’s report, 46.3 percent of California homicides were committed by a friend or acquaintance of the victim, and another 14.4 percent by an immediate family member—a spouse, parent or child. People well-known to their victims committed a full 60.7 percent of all murders in 2020. Only 35.6 percent were murdered by strangers, according to the state stats. (In the remaining 3.7 percent of homicides, the relationship between victim and killer was unknown.) Only 8.5 percent were connected to a robbery, burglary, or rape.

For Black and Latinx Californians, the homicide statistics remain all-too-real. As with the COVID-19 pandemic itself, the rise in murder hit those populations the hardest. According to the state statistics, 45.3 percent of victims in homicides where the ethnicity of the victim was noted were Latinx, though that group makes up 39.4 percent of the state population

Black Californians were hit even harder in relation to their proportion of the population. While Black residents comprise only 6.5 percent of all Californians, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, they were victims in 30.7 percent of all murders. Just 16.4 percent of 2020 homicide victims were white, though whites are 36.5 percent of all Californians, according to the Census Bureau.

Theory: There Are Too Many Guns Out There

California Attorney General Rob Bonta, when he released the 2020 crime stats, said that he connected the dramatic rise in homicides to another rising statistic—gun sales. In 2020, gun buyers purchased 65.5 percent more handguns and 45.9 percent more long guns than the year before. The state figures show that 74.2 percent of all homicides were committed using a firearm of some kind.

The gun-buying craze carried through most of the country. Even though overall arrests and stops by police declined in the early months of 2020, the number of times police found a gun on a person they arrested went up. In Los Angeles, the share of people stopped who were carrying guns nearly doubled in those early months, from just under five percent to almost 10 percent.

Do more guns necessarily cause more murders? Research clearly shows a correlation between gun ownership and gun homicides. A 2013 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that in data gathered from 1981 to 2010, every 1 percent increase in the gun ownership rate within a state is accompanied by a matching rise in gun homicide.

The same generally holds true for the country as a whole. Compared to other developed countries, the U.S. has by far the highest rate of private gun ownership and the highest rate of gun deaths (including both homicides and suicides). This same data contradicts the argument sometimes made by opponents of gun control, that if more people owned guns, there would be fewer gun homicides. In fact, more guns means more gun killings.

Those facts beg the question—why did people feel they needed to buy more guns during the pandemic year of 2020?

Theory: The Pandemic Made People Crazy

The stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with its increased social isolation and drastic economic slowdown, certainly could have been behind at least some of the increase in murders. At the same time, COVID was a worldwide phenomenon but other countries saw much lower increases in homicide. The rate in Canada went up only 7 percent; in Germany, homicides rose 3.7 percent in 2020.

The pandemic brought sudden and widespread changes to the way American society functions. As a report in Harvard Business Review explained the situation, “our brains were not built for this much uncertainty.” Human beings, authors Heidi Grant and Tal Goldhamer explained, have developed a deep affinity for routines. Our lives tend to fall into patterns and, thanks to evolution, our brains like it that way. 

A 2006 paper in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science explains that we go on “automatic pilot” for large portions of our daily interactions with our society and the world around us. What happens when those routines are suddenly disrupted, the “automatic pilot” unplugged? This level of uncertainty causes deep psychological stress that can turn into a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Aiofe O’Donovan, a UC San Francisco psychiatry professor.

The PTSD caused by high degrees of uncertainty, triggers exaggerated responses to perceived threats, O’Donovan said, quoted by UCSF news writer Brandon R. Reynolds. While committing violent acts is not a recognized symptom of PTSD, and it would be incorrect to brand PTSD sufferers as potentially violent, studies of military combat veterans have shown a markedly higher propensity to engage in aggressive, antisocial acts among those who reported suffering from PTSD than in those who did not.

Theory: Police Stopped Doing Their Jobs

In an April 2021 USA Today op-ed, Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund President Jason Johnson presented data that he said showed correlations between decreases in police activity, mostly following the 2020 summer protests over the killing of George Floyd by then-police officer Derek Chauvin, and sudden increases in murder and other violent crime. Johnson attributed the reluctance of police to do their jobs—as evidenced by declining arrest numbers in major cities throughout the months following the protests—to demoralization of officers.

Police officers, Johnson wrote, were “more risk averse, reactive and discouraged” due to the “hostile work environment” they faced following protests over police brutality and killings of Black people.

Johnson also cited several cities which he said had “defunded” police departments, at least to some degree, which he said also led to increases in violent crime.

In fact, a 2020 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research did find a direct correlation between larger police forces and decreased homicides. The study found that increasing police numbers by 1 percent would reduce homicides of Black residents by up to 2.5 percent, and homicide of whites by 4.4 percent.

But policing isn’t only about numbers. Data show that specific strategies such as “hot-spot policing,” that is, concentrating police in high-crime areas, lead to reductions in crime. Oppressive tactics such as “stop and frisk” or “broken windows” policing—increasing arrests for minor offenses on the theory that reducing small crimes also reduces big ones—may only increase distrust of police. And according to the NBER study, the police focus on minor offenses leads to a disproportionate number of arrests of Black citizens.

Theory: All of the Above

Perhaps the most likely explanation for the sharp increase in homicides in California and around the country is that there is no single explanation. All of the theories explained above appear to have some degree of validity, but none is a sufficient explanation on its own. Fewer guns combined with better quality policing and the eventual end of the pandemic all taken together may help bring homicides back to their pre-pandemic levels. Even those numbers were extremely high, compared to much of the rest of the world. America is a violent country, and California is part of that country and culture. That may be the only certainty.

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