The FBI reported a nearly 30% increase in murders in 2020, the largest single-year jump since the bureau began recording crime statistics six decades ago.
The surge in killings drove an overall 5% increase in violent crime last year, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
Violence stalked most major cities, the report found, even as the coronavirus pandemic exacted its own deadly toll across the country.
The numbers appeared to closely track preliminary data released early this year by the FBI, which showed that murders had spiked by more than 20% in 2020.
Although the reported annual increase was dramatic, the total number of homicides last year – 21,570 – did not surpass some stunning totals in the early 1990s, including the nearly 25,000 murders recorded in 1991.
The numbers are also an incomplete assessment, because 15,897 of the eligible 18,619 law enforcement agencies submitted data to the FBI last year.
James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University who analyzes data on violent crime, called last year an “aberration” and perhaps not indicative of a longer-term trend.
“Last year was unique in many ways,” Fox said. “Because of the pandemic, people were not in structured activities: Kids were not in school and adults were not at work. The whole country was divided by politics, the response to the coronavirus and the social justice movement.”
Those anxious conditions, Fox said, were accompanied by a surge in gun sales.
“Eventually, those guns get used in the heat of anger,” he said.
The FBI data generally lags behind reporting by individual police agencies, which keep contemporaneous numbers. And recent reporting has indicated a continued increase in homicides.
A midyear report by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a coalition of the nation’s largest police agencies, found that homicides continued to rise.
The group reported that homicides in 2021 were running ahead of last year by a count of 4,033 to 3,341 at the same time in 2020. The agencies reported corresponding increases in rape and aggravated assault.
Alarmed by the violence, the Justice Department moved earlier this year to establish task forces to focus on firearm trafficking across the country.
The units were created to disrupt networks in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, the California Bay Area, Sacramento and Washington, D.C.