A clear majority of Americans believe there is more violent crime in the U.S. today than in the 1990s, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll — even though today’s violent crime rate is much lower than it was 30 years ago.
This common misperception doesn’t come out of nowhere: U.S. homicides rose by about 25 percent between 2019 and 2020 — the largest single-year increase since reliable tracking began in 1960 — and 2021 has seen a similar year-over-year jump, due in large part to gun violence.
Yet as disturbing as it is, America’s pandemic-era murder spike has not yet lifted the overall violent crime rate to anything approaching its early-1990s peak, or even the level to which it fell by the end of that decade. The fact that 56 percent of Americans now believe otherwise, according to the poll, underscores how challenging it has become to keep crime rates in perspective at a time when viral media and political polarization are making valid concerns feel like unprecedented emergencies — and how quickly and easily the politics of crime could become untethered from reality in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections.
The survey of 1,715 U.S. adults, which was conducted from July 13 to 15, found that few Americans — just 14 percent — realize that violent crime remains lower today than in the 1990s. And while Republicans (73 percent) are more inclined to believe that violent crime is higher today than Democrats (49 percent) or independents (50 percent) are, the “highers” outnumber the “lowers” by wide margins across the political spectrum. Just 20 percent of Democrats (and just 16 percent of independents) think violent crime is lower today, for instance, while just 17 percent of Democrats (and just 13 percent of independents) think it’s “about the same.”
Mistaken perceptions of crime are nothing new. Asked whether violent crime is higher today in your own community than it was in the 1990s, the share who say yes drops by nearly 20 points (to 37 percent); likewise, just 38 percent say violent crime is increasing where they live, roughly half the number (70 percent) who say it is increasing overall across the U.S.
According to John Roman, a senior fellow at the University of Chicago who studies the economics of crime, this pattern — people believing crime is much worse nationally than in their own neighborhoods — has been showing up in public opinion data for decades. But it’s the neighborhood numbers, as opposed to the national numbers, that more closely match reality.
Those local numbers “tend to track the actual experience of crime and violence pretty closely,” Roman told Yahoo News, citing Gallup polling that goes back to 1990. “When crime declined enormously in the ’90s, the public’s perception of [crime in] their own community declined as well. But with the exception of 1999 and 2000 — literally just those two years over the last 30 — you didn’t see people saying that the country [as a whole] was becoming safer, even if it was.”
The question now is whether such misperceptions are getting worse — and how that widening gap might distort the politics and policy of crime going forward.
Roman said the problem is media sensationalism and political division. “The classic ‘if it bleeds it leads,’” he explained. “We are just overwhelmed with local news stories about every homicide or shooting. It’s the leading story — you hear it every day. It’s hard to hear that all the time and not think that there’s chaos somewhere close to you.”
Social media, in turn, has the power to transform a local story into a viral one, fostering the impression that there’s even more violence out there than there used to be — regardless of whether you’re actually seeing more violence where you live. “It is pretty clear that sensationalized content generates an outsized audience on social media and [further] exaggerates threats,” Roman added.
The Yahoo News/YouGov poll supports the notion that concerns about violent crime are outpacing its actual prevalence. A majority of Americans (52 percent) now describe “violent crime” as a “very big problem” in the United States — far more than the share who said the same last month about the coronavirus pandemic (36 percent), race relations (39 percent) or the economy (41 percent).
Make no mistake: After decreasing for decades, violent crime is up substantially and has become a major issue in a number of places in the U.S., particularly in communities of color. But we’re still far off from the level of violence seen 30 years ago. In New York City, for example, there were 462 murders last year — an almost 45 percent jump from 2019. To put that in perspective, however, the city saw an astounding 2,245 murders in 1990 before dropping off substantially in the years that followed.
How this plays out politically remains to be seen — but Republicans are trying to capitalize on the spike in crime. With President Biden’s pandemic relief plan and infrastructure proposals polling well with most Americans, Republicans have signaled that violent crime will be a major issue for them in 2022. GOP politicians from former President Donald Trump on down frequently claim that violent crime is rising because cities with Democratic leadership have reduced their police budgets — even though studies show that violent crime and murder have risen in Republican-led cities as well.
“There are very few Republican mayors,” Roman said. “So when you say the cities are going to heck, you’re talking about Democratic cities and the politics versus the actual reality of living in those places.”
There are signs that the GOP’s efforts to blame progressives for the uptick in violent crime are reaching voters. Among Americans who say violent crime is rising, for instance, 53 percent cite “the racial justice movement” as the top reason why. No other explanation — not joblessness (48 percent), systemic racism (39 percent), rising gun sales (34 percent), the pandemic (34 percent) or immigration (32 percent) — clears the 50 percent mark.
It’s unclear, though, whether tough-on-crime messaging that may at times exaggerate the problem can really swing the suburbs away from Biden, who authored the 1994 crime bill and spent decades talking tough on crime himself. Meanwhile, Democrats are attempting to deflect accusations that they want to “defund the police” by arguing that Republicans who voted against March’s pandemic relief package — which included money that state and local governments could allocate for law enforcement — were in fact the ones doing the defunding.
Early signals for how crime will play at the ballot box have been mixed. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner — a poster boy for the progressive-prosecutor movement — easily won his primary earlier this year, and Pittsburgh’s incumbent Democratic mayor lost to a challenger who attacked him for failing to crack down on police brutality during last summer’s protests. In June, Democrat Melanie Stansbury easily won a special election for the House of Representatives in New Mexico even though her Republican opponent relentlessly accused her of wanting to defund the police and being soft on crime.
Yet in New York City, Eric Adams, a Black former cop who spoke out against police abuse but also said he considered himself “extremely conservative on crime,” recently won the Democratic mayoral primary. And Stansbury’s district was already a Democratic stronghold, meaning it may not prove to be much of a bellwether when it comes to next year’s elections.
As political tensions rise, a bipartisan deal on police reform is floundering in Congress; Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., one of the three main negotiators, recently said the proposed legislation is likely to fail if an agreement doesn’t pass by the end of July. According to Roman, the current politicization of the issue makes it very difficult to enact the kind of policies that could actually help reverse today’s troubling tide of violence.
“I think we’re just going to have to wait for this crime decline to play itself out a little bit before we can implement some of the solutions we were starting to take up in 2017, 2018, and 2019,” Roman said, citing anti-violence community groups and hospital-based violence intervention programs as examples. “In a hyperpolitical world, it’s very hard to get that stuff through a budget process, because the rallying cry is ‘lock ’em up.’ You just can’t have a reasoned, evidence-based discussion.”
By Jake Horton
July 7, 2021
New York has become the first state in the US to declare an emergency to tackle increasing levels of gun violence, directing extra funds for programmes aimed at preventing shootings.
“More people are now dying from gun violence and crime than [from] Covid,” state governor Andrew Cuomo said.
President Joe Biden has also promised renewed efforts to tackle crime in the US, as a series of major cities experience spikes in violent offences.
We’ve taken a look at the violent crime trends across the US.
Is violent crime going up?
Police departments across the US define violent crime in slightly different ways, but the data usually includes murder, robbery, assault, and rape.
Overall, violent crime was up by about 3% in 2020 over the previous year, but this should be seen in the context of the longer-term downward trend from a peak in the early 1990s.
Across the US, there were 25% more murders recorded in 2020 than the previous year.
This is a steep rise, but the murder rate is still far lower than in the early 1990s when it was almost double the current figure.
Which cities are seeing a spike in murders?
Major US cities have tended to follow the national trend in becoming safer since the 1990s, but some have also seen a sharp rise in murders recently.
These spikes in some of the biggest US cities have been of considerable concern to President Biden’s administration.
The New York Times looked at 37 cities across the US with data for the first three months of this year, and overall there has been an 18% increase in murders compared with the same time period in 2020.
Chicago has one of the worst records for murders, with a big increase in 2020 and a continuing upwards trend so far in 2021.
Shooting incidents in Chicago are also up 15% on the same point last year and are more than double the level they were at two years ago.
A rise in the number of shootings has been seen in many other major US cities as well, with President Biden attempting to strengthen firearm regulations to combat gun violence.
New York has also seen shooting incidents and murders rise, continuing an upward trend that began in 2020.
Through to the middle of June, there have been almost 200 murders in New York so far this year – more than a 13% increase on the same period two years ago.
Shooting incidents in New York were up by nearly 38% for the period from the beginning of January up to 4 July compared with the same period in 2020.
However, June this year actually saw fewer shootings than June last year, going by police department data.
It’s worth pointing out that over the last 20 years, both New York and Chicago, along with most other US cities, have seen overall violent crime drop significantly.
But in the last 15 months, coronavirus restrictions have put unprecedented social and economic pressures on people.
New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has linked the upward trend in gun violence to the disruption to school and work-life caused by the pandemic.
He said this had left “at-risk youth without safe, productive places to go during the day.”
There was also an increase in gun sales during the pandemic, which may have contributed to rising gun violence.
2020’s historic surge in murders, explained
We still don’t know why murders in the US rose so much. Here’s what we do know.
By German Lopez
Mar 25, 2021
Looking back at 2020, Americans will remember Covid-19, the collapsing economy, the election, and, perhaps, a big surge in murders.
The official crime data for 2020 won’t come out until later this year, but the data we do have suggests 2020 saw a historic increase in the number of murders nationwide. Based on preliminary FBI data, the US’s murder rate increased by 25 percent or more in 2020. That amounts to more than 20,000 murders in a year for the first time since 1995, up from about 16,000 in 2019, according to crime analyst Jeff Asher. The increase was also found in other data sets from the Council on Criminal Justice and Asher. Across these analyses, aggravated assaults and gun assaults — gun violence — also increased, even as crime overall fell.
The 2020 murder surge “is the largest increase in violence we’ve seen since 1960, when we started collecting formal crime statistics,” John Roman, a criminal justice expert at NORC at the University of Chicago, told me. “We’ve never seen a year-over-year increase even approaching this magnitude.”
The surge is from a relatively low baseline. It comes after decades of drops in murders and crime more broadly in the US, and the total number of murders is still far lower than it was for much of the 1990s and before. But that’s one reason the surge is alarming: It breaks decades of relative peace across the country — one that had continued, with only minor fits and starts, from 1994 to at least 2014.
“We’re still living through a very safe era in US history,” Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at Princeton, told me. “When you start from a low base, a percentage increase can be a little bit misleading. … But there was a huge surge in violence — without a doubt.”
We still don’t know why murders surged last year. Experts have some theories: the Covid-19 pandemic’s disruptions to everyday life, a breakdown of police-community relations, an increase in the number of guns purchased. One or all of these factors could have played a role, but there could also be other reasons we don’t know about yet.
That we don’t yet know what caused 2020’s murder surge isn’t surprising. To this day, there’s still a lot of debate and disagreement among experts about what caused the massive decrease that halved overall crime and violent crime rates in America since the 1990s — known as the Great Crime Decline. There are theories based on the research, ranging from changes in policing to less lead exposure to the rise of video games, but there’s not a single set of explanations that the entire field of criminology has embraced.
We also don’t know if 2020’s increases represent a permanent shift in murder or violent crime trends. According to Asher, so far murders were up in the first three months of 2021 compared to the same period last year in a sample of 37 US cities. But that data is too early to draw sweeping conclusions from. And there’s reason to believe, between Covid-19 and last year’s large protests about policing, the trends could be driven by temporary factors.
Regardless of cause, and permanent or not, experts also argue that there are things the US could do right now to reduce murders, from urban renewal initiatives to gun control laws to changes in policing. Even if there hadn’t been an increase in 2020, the proposed solutions could have helped make the US even safer than it was in the past few years.
But the fact that murder did increase in 2020 — and by so much — has made these solutions all the more pressing.
Last year saw the largest murder surge in decades
A 25 percent increase in murders effectively erases decades of progress in combating violent crime, bringing the US back to levels of homicide it hasn’t seen since the 1990s. “Last year was clearly the most violent year of the [21st] century so far,” Sharkey said.
The data is preliminary, and we won’t get the official, finalized 2020 numbers until later this year, likely in the late summer or early fall.
But multiple data sets suggest this is a real increase.
First, there’s the preliminary FBI data, which is missing data from some local and state governments but is still the most comprehensive data set we have. What it shows is very concerning: Not only were murder rates up overall, but they were up practically everywhere the data tracks so far — big or small cities, metropolitan or nonmetropolitan counties, and Northeast or South or Midwest or West.
A separate report, from the Council on Criminal Justice, found a 30 percent increase in homicide rates in 2020, analyzing data from 34 US cities. Asher’s analysis found murder up 37 percent across 57 localities last year.
The increase in violence includes more mass shootings, defined by the Gun Violence Archive as a shooting in which four or more people were injured, including gang shootings and incidents of domestic violence. Under that metric, mass shootings were up more than 46 percent last year, even as high-profile, public mass shootings that get a lot of media coverage were less common.
The FBI analysis found violent crime was up by 3 percent nationwide, although not as uniformly as murder was. The three data sets all found some kinds of violent crime were up, including aggravated assaults and gun assaults, while others were down, including rape and robbery. Crime overall fell, largely due to drops in nonviolent offenses involving drugs, burglary, or theft (with an exception for car theft).
We don’t have very good data on who, exactly, has been affected most by the surge in murders. But, historically, the burden has fallen most on low-income communities of color. To that end, Sharkey estimated, “Since , the rate of shootings in high-poverty neighborhoods has doubled.”
A big problem here, exemplified by the fact we’re relying on partial and preliminary data for 2020 three months into 2021, is that crime data in the US is generally of poor quality. The full data arrives on a delay — usually six-plus months after the period it’s from — and is based on reports from local and state governments, which can choose not to report any data at all. And because it comes from police agencies, it doesn’t capture any crimes not recorded by the police, likely leaving us unaware of crimes that aren’t always reported (such as theft or rape), though that’s less likely to be true for murder.
Still, it’s safe to say per the data we do have that the murder rate increased last year — a lot.
We don’t know why murders increased so much last year
While experts are certain that last year saw a historic surge in murder, what’s less clear is why. So far, they have offered three possible explanations, all speculative:
1) The Covid-19 pandemic: The coronavirus caused massive disruptions in American life, from the economy to education to entertainment. With all this change in human behavior, there’s a good chance that people changed something in their day-to-day lives that led to more violent crimes, shootings, and murders. Experts don’t necessarily know what that something might be yet.
There are some plausible explanations that fit into the preexisting evidence. For example, isolation and idleness tend to be big concerns for criminologists: When people, especially teenage boys, and young men, lack the right social connections and have a lot of free time on their hands, they’re more likely to get into trouble — spending time when they’d be at work or school on gang or other illicit activity, possibly to make ends meet or to socialize. As the pandemic shut down much of day-to-day life, including schools and some sectors of work, those circumstances were more likely in 2020 and may have led to more violence.
Separately, a lot of programs that could help build social cohesion and combat violent crime and murder, including police and other parts of the government but also civilian-led initiatives, shut down for at least parts of the year as a result of the pandemic. That, too, could have led to more violence.
2) The protests over policing: After the police killing of George Floyd, America was rocked by months of protests over police brutality. Initial rioting at some protests led to a brief spike in nonresidential burglaries in late May, but that quickly subsided and doesn’t explain the increase in violent crime; instead, experts cite breakdowns in police-community relations.
Those breakdowns could impact violent crime in two ways. Maybe the police, afraid of coming under criticism through the next viral video or acting in protest of the demonstrations, pulled back on proactive practices that suppress crime. Or maybe much of the public lost trust in the police, refusing to cooperate with them — making it harder for police to lock up offenders who go on to commit more crimes, and also possibly leading to more “street justice,” as more people distrust the legal system to stop wrongdoers and instead take matters into their own hands. Or a mix of both could have played a role.
3) More guns, more gun violence: In 2020, Americans bought a record number of guns, likely in response to the chaos and fears that engulfed the year. The research is consistent on this point: More guns lead to more gun violence. One study linked the increase in gun purchases through May 2020 to more such violence. With so many guns around, they’re just more likely to be used in violence — their expanded presence makes it more likely that arguments or fights escalate out of control, that thieves can steal firearms to use them in other crimes, or that people can simply purchase more of the weapons with explicitly ill intent.
There’s another possibility: that none of these explanations is correct. After such a weird year, and with such limited data about it, even the smartest, most informed experts are largely flying blind and, by their own admission, speculating a lot. It’s very much possible no one knows what’s going on yet. “We can bet on it being unpredictable,” Jennifer Doleac, director of the Justice Tech Lab, previously told me.
After all, there’s still no consensus about the Great Crime Decline, which has been studied for literally decades. So it’s not too surprising that there are still unresolved questions about a trend that isn’t even a year past.
The surge could subside after Covid-19. Or not.
Given that the past year was so weird in so many ways, it’s entirely possible that the murder surge will subside. Some experts, at least, believe that’s possible.
“I don’t think it represents a longer-term shift,” Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist and one of the authors of the Council on Criminal Justice report, told me. He noted that the murder rates started to come down, on average, after the summer. “I don’t expect that to reverse.”
Something like this has happened before. Between 2005 and 2006, the homicide rate briefly increased, only to decline to record lows by 2014. In 2015 and 2016, the rates also spiked and then dipped after. In both of these instances, the spikes were seemingly outliers in a decades-long trend.
But other experts aren’t convinced and argue that betting on an inexplicable trend continuing is a big gamble, especially with lives on the line. There’s also early evidence that the increase in murders has continued into 2021, even as things have gotten a little more normal with the pandemic and economy.
“I’m worried it’s a permanent shift,” Roman said. “I think 2021 is going to be a bad year.” He added, “I’m not terribly optimistic that these numbers are going to go back to the 2014 levels anytime in the near future.”
There is one thing that experts, at least, agree on: There are proven solutions to cut crime and murder rates in the US, and they should be more widely adopted regardless of whether the 2020 murder surge proves to be long- or short-term.
Social programs could go toward decreasing isolation and idleness, particularly among teenage boys and young men most at risk for violence, such as through summer jobs programs or raising the age to drop out of school. Urban renewal initiatives could put more eyes on the street — by greening vacant lots or simply installing more lighting — since would-be shooters are less likely to strike when there are witnesses. There are community programs, like Becoming a Man’s psychosocial intervention for teens. Broader policies could help, such as raising the alcohol tax or limiting alcohol sales at a given time or place.
Gun control measures are backed by research, too. Universal background checks alone have limited evidence to support them, but there’s fairly strong evidence for a system that requires a license to buy and own a gun, similar to needing a license and registration to drive a car.
Police can also play a role. “Social service providers are not going to go into situations where there’s a gun,” Sharkey said.
Some strategies, like “focused deterrence,” have solid evidence behind them. Broadly speaking, this approach targets very specific parts of the population known to be at risk of gun violence, offering them a carrot — a jobs or education program, for example — or a stick, particularly the threat of arrest. In Oakland, California, this strategy was linked to a 50 percent decrease in homicides from 2012 to 2017.
But implementing this kind of program is going to be difficult in the current social and political environment, in which police have lost a significant amount of credibility with parts of the public, particularly the low-income communities of color affected most by increasing violent crime and murder rates. Police have to find a way to repair that trust and bolster their legitimacy in the eyes of the community — both by holding themselves accountable and by actually changing their ways. Otherwise, their ability to fight crime could remain limited.
Still, if done correctly, police could be part of the solution and might have to be, given a large number of guns in the US.
A lot of this requires first ending the pandemic. Summer jobs programs, community interventions, and new policing strategies require the kind of in-person contact that is now very risky.
Perhaps the best anti-murder strategy in the short term, then, maybe the same as the one to end the pandemic: increasing vaccinations, masking up, and social distancing.
Maybe 2020’s murder surge will subside even if America doesn’t do any of this. But the evidence suggests that, whether or not there is a continued surge, taking action could help drive crime and violence even lower than it was before. Americans were living in a steady era of relative peace before the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do even better.