Next week, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden will face each other for the first time on the debate stage. Some of the most pressing problems of our time will be front and center: the coronavirus pandemic, the Supreme Court vacancy, and the fight for racial justice. So far, the candidates’ discussion of justice issues has focused less on how to address America’s longstanding inequity and more on how cities are facing a violent crime surge in a time of unrest—and who is to blame.
Trump and his supporters have repeatedly spoken of bringing “law and order” to Democrat-run cities that are full of “anarchy and mayhem,” even though racial justice protests around the country this summer have been mostly peaceful. Biden, on the other hand, has mostly skirted talk of unrest, emphasizing that the crime rate dropped while he was the vice president and that a surge of murders happened under Trump’s watch.
Wading through these mixed messages of what’s happening in cities, it’s hard to tell just what the data says. Most types of crime decreased this summer, while serious violent crimes—such as aggravated assault and murder—increased, according to an analysis of crime rates in 27 major US cities by the Council on Criminal Justice, a criminal justice think tank. A preliminary crime report published by the FBI earlier this month shows similar trends nationwide.
To make sense of what this all means, The Marshall Project and Vox have parsed findings from January to June, as well as decades prior for comparison, of not just crime data but media reports, public opinion polls, and stats on policing and jail populations. Politicians and pundits are pointing fingers at what they believe caused the increase in violent crime rates: the protests against police violence, movements to defund the police, and efforts to release people from overcrowded jails and prisons ravaged by the coronavirus. But the data available thus far does not support that these are the culprits.
Understanding what drives crime rates is tricky because there’s no single cause or answer. This is especially true in the pandemic, which has introduced unfamiliar patterns. What is known, however, is that sensational media reports and misleading statements from politicians can blow the degree of violence out of proportion and make the public believe that crime is increasing, even when it isn’t.
As the country gears up for the presidential election—and the messaging of politicians and the media that comes with it—here are 11 data visualizations, along with analysis, that can help think through what the summer’s crime trends mean and how to move forward.Violent crime was up in early summer; nonviolent and property crime was down
Beginning in late March, cities across the country saw a decrease in most types of crime, including burglary, theft, robbery, and drug crimes, according to the Council on Criminal Justice report.
Most Kinds of Crime Decreased in 2020 through June
In 27 major cities across the United States, reports of most types of offenses — burglary, larceny, robbery and drug crimes — dropped significantly through June, compared to the cities’ combined average crime rate of the past three years.
Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri St. Louis who authored the report, said that cities’ shutdowns beginning in March largely drove the decreases this summer. More people staying at home meant fewer houses were broken into; fewer people going out at night meant fewer opportunities for theft and robbery, for example.
But for some of the most violent crimes, such as shootings, aggravated assault, and murders, the number of incidents in the cities we examined have increased in the pandemic. Compared with a three-year average between 2017 and 2019, homicides increased 25 percent between April and June.
Data included in the Council on Criminal Justice’s report stops at the end of June, and doesn’t include cities like Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, where protest tensions rose and shootings occurred, by a counterprotester and a vigilante, respectively, in August. Or in Louisville, Kentucky, where two police officers were shot on Wednesday following a grand jury’s decision not to charge any officers for killing Breonna Taylor. That said, some reports show violent crime continued at elevated rates in July and August and property crime rates have gone down.
But Some of The Most Violent Crimes Increased at The Start of The Summer
Reports of homicides, aggravated assaults and shootings, which are rarer but more devastating to the victims and their families, rose in 2020 compared to the past three years.
David Abrams, a law and public policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has examined major cities’ public crime data since the beginning of the pandemic. He publishes real-time crime trends on City Crime Stats, an online data portal that allows viewers to explore how specific types of crime changed in each city.
While the data portal shows similar trends in upticks of murder and decreases in other crimes, pinpointing the exact factors that drive up murders is much more complicated than understanding what caused the decrease in crimes like burglaries, Abrams said.
One of the main reasons: The motivation behind burglaries or larceny is often money, whereas the motivation behind murders and shootings is more varied, he said.
Many factors might play into these increases: A 60 percent surge in gun purchases can be followed by more shootings; trapping domestic violence survivors and abusers under the same roof during the quarantine may cause more assaults and murders; and COVID-19 has made police outreach work even more difficult. The pandemic has also turned families and support systems upside down—unemployment is high, schools and many summer programs have closed, and people, especially from low-income communities and communities of color, have faced illness and death in their families from COVID-19, making routines and structures impossible to maintain.
Dorothy Johnson-Speight, a community organizer in Philadelphia, said she is especially troubled by how many shootings and violent crimes involved young people this summer.
She noted that not only have schools closed, but so have most youth programs that can give young people a sense of structure and belonging. Johnson-Speight, who founded the violence prevention group Mothers in Charge after her son was killed in 2001 over a parking dispute, believes many of the shootings in Philadelphia this year involved people who are under the age of 18, though official police figures are not available. A recent example was a 16-year-old shot dead on Sept. 21, with an 18-year-old and a 12-year-old shot on the same day.
“The anxiety and pain and grief are on steroids because of what’s happening with COVID,” Johnson-Speight said. “People have no way of seeing things getting better, and there is nothing at the end of the tunnel. What I hear from parents that lost one or two or three children is, ‘What’s going to happen next? Will my other children suffer the same thing?’”
While the pandemic brings much uncertainty, there is one thing that may lead to a drop in crime: the weather. Historical trends show that the violent crime rate often increases in the summer, reaches its peak in the fall, and drops to the lowest point in winter—as temperatures decrease and people retreat indoors again.Crime increased after protests against police violence … briefly
Following the police killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in Minneapolis in May, protests against police violence and systemic racism quickly spread across the country, from major cities to historically conservative, majority-white towns—more so perhaps than any civil rights protests in the nation’s history. However, with the protests came news coverage focused on riots, lootings, and scenes of chaos, despite an estimated 93 percent of protests being peaceful.
President Donald Trump has said little about the police violence against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and other Black Americans, but has spoken consistently of “law and order.” In July, with Black Lives Matter protests still happening in major cities, Trump sent in federal law enforcement agents to nine cities led by Democratic mayors to stop what the president called “shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence,” whether or not any of those things were happening in those places.
“This bloodshed must end,” Trump said during official remarks in July. “This bloodshed will end.”
The implication was that the protests had caused the rise in violence, or “bloodshed”—but was that true?
The nationwide protests kicked off in late May, when homicides remained low. There was an increase in mid-June, but the Council on Criminal Justice’s data does not break down where the murders happened in each city, which makes it difficult to analyze protests’ direct impact on violent crime.
What is known is that Black Lives Matter demonstrations have been mostly peaceful. Researchers at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project analyzed more than 7,750 demonstrations from 2,400 locations between May and August, and found that less than 7 percent of the protest were violent, which the researchers define as where “demonstrators themselves engage in violently disruptive and/or destructive acts targeting other individuals, property, businesses, other rioting groups or armed actors.” This can range from vandalism and looting to clashing with the police, a much wider net than police’s definition of “violent crime,” which include rape and sexual assault, robbery, assault, and murder.
If anything, aggressive and militarized government response has made demonstrations more violent, researchers concluded. For example, before Trump deployed the federal task force to Portland, Oregon, 17 percent of the demonstrations were violent; after federal law enforcement agents entered Portland, the share of violent demonstrations more than doubled, to 42 percent. Criminologists have warned that sending in federal law enforcement officers, like border patrol agents or Bureau of Prisons guards, with no training or knowledge on local issues can do more harm than good.
Another unintended consequence of escalating federal involvement in policing protests is that it hinders people’s trust in the police. Even before this summer, victims of violent crime said some of the most common reasons that stopped them from going to the police were they “dealt with it another way,” “fear of reprisal or getting offender in trouble,” and “police would not or could not help.” An increasing distrust in police may lead to more vigilantism and more unreported crimes.
Also, violent crimes are rare enough that small changes in absolute numbers can lead to large statistical swings, and that’s especially true for the most serious kind of violent crimes like murders.
For example, homicides in 20 cities tracked in Rosenfeld’s report increased by more than half around the last week of June, which is an alarming trend compared to the past three years. However, looking at the raw numbers, homicides increased from roughly 70 homicides per week to 101 per week, or fewer than one additional death in each city every day. Most of the increase took place in Chicago.
Homicides Increased in Major Cities
In most cities, the number of homicides increased through June compared with the past three years. The largest increase of the 20 cities analyzed was in Chicago, where between January and June, homicides rose by 50, compared to the average of the past three years. Philadelphia had the second-largest increase, with 38 more murders.
And then there is another historical trend: While the trauma and loss that accompany each murder cannot be measured by numbers, the level of violence in American cities does not come close to the level of violence during the 1990s, where nearly every 30 in 100,000 people were killed. In recent years, it’s been about 10 in 100,000.
In all, criminologists say it’s difficult to draw any conclusions between protests and violent crimes—especially during a time when the US coronavirus death toll surpassed 100,000, the country was experiencing an unprecedented level of unemployment, and coronavirus-related precautions restricted police’s ability to solve crimes.
That said, some more common crimes associated with protests, such as burglary, can perhaps shed more insight on the impact of protests on crime. Commercial burglary—or breaking into a business establishment—is typically associated with what is commonly called looting. Among all types of crimes tracked in the Council on Criminal Justice report, commercial burglary had the most significant spike in the beginning of June, when police violence protests began to spread.
Commercial Burglaries Surged after The Police Killing of George Floyd
The police killing of an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis on May 25 sparked protests across the country. Compared with the past three years, in those first few days of unrest through June, reports of commercial burglaries surged before returning to normal levels just as quickly.
Within one week, the number of commercial burglaries in major US cities jumped from nearly 5,000 to almost 10,000. But the number of incidents dropped just as quickly in the following week, back to below-normal levels.
Commercial Burglaries by City
Compared with the past three years, most cities saw a brief spike in commercial burglary reports through June, shortly after protests against police violence broke out. In some cities, such as Denver, San Francisco and Chicago, commercial burglaries were already on the rise before protests began.
The evidence suggests that significant looting was confined to the first wave of protests. But there could be another explanation: Active police enforcement—or an emphasis on enforcing specific crimes—can swing crime rates up and down.Crime trends are affected by police enforcement
Something to know about crime trends: They are shaped by police action and inaction. Crime trends reflect crime reports collected by law enforcement agencies. Crime reports are created when law enforcement responds to calls or uses tactics such as traffic stops or stop-and-frisk.
While the Supreme Court ruled that it’s illegal to stop and frisk someone simply for living in a “high crime area,” research still shows people in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods are searched a lot more frequently. Even though most people who are stopped are innocent, their interactions with the police can have lasting effects, including feeling discouraged to report a crime to the police themselves.
New York City is a good example of the power of police-initiated actions. When the city began to shut down in April, the number of drug crimes plummeted. Then it began to steadily increase through April and May, as people emerged from lockdown and police officers began patrolling again, getting close to pre-pandemic levels. And when the protests sparked by Floyd’s death spread across the city in late May and early June, the number of drug crimes again dropped overnight.
How Police Enforcement Influences Drug Crimes
Reports of drug crimes in New York City had large swings this year compared with trends in the past three years, which experts and public defenders believe is a direct reflection of circumstances: The number of officers under quarantine at the beginning of the pandemic drove down the number of drug crimes NYPD documented, and allocation of resources to protest crowd control had the same effect.