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Opinion

Did Covid help turn Americans into bloodthirsty killers in 2020? Some cities saw a 400% increase in homicides

Recently released figures show a shocking rise in murders across the US. Experts warn there’s not a single explanation, but agree the pandemic and social unrest were major factors. Will the bloodshed continue in 2021?

St Louis has just recorded its most homicides in 50 years. In Boston, killings have also shot up, with a rise of 54 percent on 2019. Omaha has experienced an even more shocking increase, with numbers doubling in 12 months.

And then there’s Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, topping the league table of American cities with an incredible 400 percent rise.  

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Murder rates surged all over the US in 2020. New York recorded 437 cases, up 39 percent, and Los Angeles 343, a 33-percent jump.

After decades of stable or falling murder rates in most US cities and towns, the numbers are shocking. What lies behind them?

Speaking to RT.com, Emma E. Fridel, Assistant Professor at Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, explains: “Cities often report seemingly high percentage increases in homicide, without providing context. Homicide is a relatively rare event, even in large cities. Percentages – especially percentages changes – are not stable when the denominator is a small number. 

“An increase from one homicide to two, still a very low number, would be a whopping 100 percent increase.

“For example, some reports state Boston’s murder rate skyrocketed by over 50 percent from 2019 to 2020. They failed to mention, however, that Boston only had 34 homicides in 2019, so that each additional murder in 2020 above 34 is an additional three percent increase.”

That is the case in America’s leader, Madison. It went from two to 10 homicides – hence the massive 400% percentage rise on paper.

But the point remains: many more killings occurred in 2020 compared to 2019. Chicago saw 267 more, Milwaukee 93 and Houston had an additional 96.

Clearly, the pandemic has played some sort of part, but what exactly is that?

Obviously, it can’t be separated from the general turmoil that America underwent in 2020.

There was the massive backlash to the killing of George Floyd and the rise of the BLM movement and Antifa. That saw a counter campaign from the right and groups like The Proud Boys. As riots broke out, gun ownership set records as people worried about their personal safety and looters – almost 17 million guns were purchased in 2020, an all-time high. Then there was the bitter election, which saw Joe Biden’s legitimacy questioned by millions.

Homicide can be split into two main types: confrontational and domestic. The Covid-19 chaos has fuelled both.

Confrontational homicides arise from an altercation that sparks violence, like an argument over a parking space, or someone feeling they’ve been disrespected, or a clash between rival criminal gangs.

Augusta University Sociologist Kim Davies says: “They often occur in public, and the offenders may or may not know one another and it is not unlikely that one or both are under the influence of alcohol or illicit substances. 

“In the US, when these confrontations escalate, those involved may turn to guns to settle the disputes and they are more lethal than other weapons and we have seen an increase in gun sales, but I wouldn’t say that is leading the problem.”

Instead, Davies feels the rise can be put down to anomie, a sociological term defined by an uprooting or breakdown of moral values and standards that individuals follow.

“The French sociologist Emile Durkheim used this term to describe the period of industrialization, but it fits what is going on in the US today,” Davies explains. “We are in a period of instability, there is the pandemic, many people are out of work, others are risking their lives to work as essential workers, we were in flux with our elections and our leaders were acting differently than in the past.

“During times of anomie, we might expect an increase in stress and conflict and thus more confrontational homicide.”

The rise was also driven by the fallout from the BLM movement’s calls to ‘Defund The Police,’ which did lead to some cities cutting police budgets, and demoralised many of the men and women in blue. It also coincided with a fall in the public’s belief in the police, with a poll last summer reporting that trust in the cops had fallen to its lowest level in 27 years

“When you have some communities or people not trusting the police,” Davies says, “sometimes we see individuals or groups trying to settle disputes themselves rather than turning to police and this practice may have increased during this year where we saw more attention to the injustice faced by minorities in the U.S.”

Another academic, Dr Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri’s Criminology & Criminal Justice Department, agrees with these sentiments.

He points to the same combination driving the killing spree, telling RT.com: “Two contributors stand out: the impact of the pandemic on policing and a decline in police legitimacy in the aftermath of widespread demonstrations against police violence. 

“Reduced confidence in the fairness and effectiveness of the police means people are more likely to take matters into their own hands when resolving disputes.

“Other contributors could be an increase in firearms, especially those that enable a shooter to discharge multiple rounds in just seconds.”

Rosenfeld also confirmed that the pandemic has played a key role. To stop the spread of Covid-19, people are supposed to stay apart and not engage, which is a bedrock of effective community policing. “Social distancing has reduced the kind of face-to-face policing that can help keep violent crime in check,” he explains.

However, the pandemic’s effects extend further. Homicide, by definition, involves violence and most bystanders’ first instinct is to call the emergency services. Not only are ambulance crews overworked due to Covid-19, hospitals are full and cannot devote the resources they did before 2020.

Commenting on data released by the Department of Health and Human Services, one expert said: “What you can see in this data is that our hospitals are under so much stress.” In December, 200 hospitals in America were at 100-percent capacity and more than 90 percent of intensive care beds were occupied in a third of hospitals nationwide. 

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This is having a disastrous impact on the ability of medics to prevent deaths. Davies says: “We are good at saving lives these days and often murders don’t happen as amazing emergency doctors and nurses save lives making would-be murders into aggravated assaults. 

“With the pandemic, emergency rooms may not have the bandwidth to save as many lives.”

The other type of homicide is domestic or intimate, usually carried out at home, by a partner or relative. The experts suggest more guns isn’t a major factor here, but that the secondary effects of lockdown are.

Fridel explains: “People are spending more time together at home during a particularly stressful time. 

“The pandemic fuels many potential risk factors for crime, including strain due to mental health issues (e.g. depression and anxiety), financial issues, and a lack of social support being cut off from normal socialization during quarantine.”

Jeff Noble is a former Deputy Chief of Police at California’s Irvine Police Department, who now works as a consultant. His take is that the general “defund” movement has spawned an anti-police agenda that is undermining the battle against crime: “I don’t believe the police are incapable of maintaining order, rather it seems they are being precluded from taking action due to political decisions at the local level and a refusal of local prosecutors to file cases on protestors. 

“This refusal to enforce the laws has led to the belief among some protestors that they may engage in property damage and violence with impunity. This is particularly true in some of the larger more liberal cities across the country. Unfortunately, the election of President Biden did not resolve these protests.”

But he does offer hope that the police are able to clamp down if allowed, pointing to the recent storming of The Capitol in Washington and how suspects were detained quickly.

“First, it shows that we can track down people fairly easily due to the volume of video at these incidents – these people are all over the country, yet they are being quickly identified and arrested. 

“Second, is that wrongdoers are being held accountable. Finally, there is a strong message that people will not only be held accountable for their criminal acts, but their employers and communities are taking action as well.”

And from a law enforcement viewpoint, Covid-19 also made things tougher. Due to worries over the virus spreading, some criminals were released and Noble feels that could have contributed to the homicide rise: “Placing large numbers of individuals back on the streets in an environment where employment is limited is likely to increase crime.”

What will happen from here on is anyone’s guess. The pandemic is still with us and looks like being around for a large part, if not most, of 2021.

Issues such as trust in and support for the police, and the social conditions driving Americans to kill, remain.

Maybe if the new administration can heal society’s deep divisions and the vaccine program is successful, things may calm down and the homicide rate will return to normal levels.

Few people want to see a sustained return to the bad old days of the 1980s, where the homicide rate ranged from 7.9 to 10.2 per 100,000 population; in comparison, from 2000 to 2019, the homicide rate ranged from a low of 4.4 in 2014 to a high of 5.8 in 2006. Even without any large-scale shooting last year, overall the rate was up 36 percent across 28 of America’s major cities.

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Fridel, for one, is guardedly optimistic: “Post-pandemic, it is unlikely that homicide rates will continue to rise. Considering the stability homicide rates have exhibited over time, it is much more likely that they will return to their pre-pandemic levels.”

For that to happen, every American must bank on the vaccine doing more than just killing the virus.

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