Police tape surrounding a 4-block radius of 99th Street and 37th Avenue in the Corona neighborhood of Queens in New York City. Overall crime declined in 2020, despite the media's emphasis on the increasing murder rate

Police tape surrounding a 4-block radius of 99th Street and 37th Avenue in the Corona neighborhood of Queens in New York City. Overall crime declined in 2020, despite the media's emphasis on the increasing murder rate

Something astounding happened in 2020: Major crime — which includes armed assault, robbery, car jackings, rape, and murder — dropped by 5 about percent from 2019. Conventional wisdom has it that crime is likely to increase during periods of upheaval. The U.S. had not experienced the kind of upheaval it faced last year in more than a century.

Major crimes decreased despite a once-in-a-century pandemic; we had a Depression-like jobless rate that topped out at nearly 15 percent; local programs and other initiatives to reduce violence were curtailed; Covid lockdowns made it difficult to continue in-person outreach programs designed to prevent crime. And the murder of George Floyd sparked an unprecedented level of protest and unrest.

Police departments had trouble keeping cops on the beat because of illness and quarantine. Nearly half of low-income Americans found it difficult to pay bills last year, with about a third struggling to pay rent or a mortgage. About a quarter of adults in the U.S. say they or someone in their household had lost a job.

That all happened amid one of the most contentious presidential elections in modern U.S. history, which was capped by a violent insurrection attempt just six days after 2020 ended.

And yet, overall and major crimes fell last year, defying expectations and expert analysis that have long told us that shocks such as bad economic times and periods of uncertainty usually push the rate upwards. Not only that, despite New York becoming the early epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S., the number of homicides there remained at about a fifth of its peak in the 1990s even with a small uptick between 2019 and 2020.

It’s the kind of result that should have criminologists rethinking everything they thought they knew about a subject that has always confounded them. They know violent crime usually peaks and dips in cycles. They don’t really know why, when spikes will begin or end, what ignites them, or where. That’s why, even as researchers in the 1990s were predicting waves of “super predators,” what had been a historically-high level of violence had already begun to subside — a trend of falling crime rates that would last for three decades.

But that’s not the story many journalists have been telling, or at least not emphasizing. Headlines and leads focused on the spike in homicides could be found in numerous major news outlets, including The Washington Post, NPR, USA Today, and The Associated Press . Vox bucked the trend with the headline “Murders are up. Crime is not. What’s going on?” But a recent New York Times article is more typical of the framing. Under the headline “Murders Spiked in 2020 in Cities Across the United States,” it starts this way:

The United States experienced its biggest one-year increase on record in homicides in 2020, according to new figures released on Monday by the F.B.I., with some cities hitting record highs.

Although major crimes were down overall, there were an additional 4,901 homicides in 2020 compared with the year before, the largest leap since national records started in 1960. The significant rise has roughly coincided with the 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The higher murder rate has continued into 2021, although the pace has slowed as the year has progressed.

Overall, the toll of some 21,500 people killed last year is still well below the record set during the violence of the early 1990s. Still, several cities, like Albuquerque, Des Moines, Indianapolis, Memphis, Milwaukee and Syracuse, recorded their highest homicide numbers ever, according to the report.

You have to read 30 grafs into the piece before discovering this:

Murders tend to have the most devastating impact of all crimes, and to attract the most attention, but they actually constitute a small percentage of major crimes, a classification that includes rape, armed assault, robbery and car thefts.

Given that people were staying at home far more during the pandemic, some categories like burglaries dropped in 2020, the F.B.I. numbers show. Major crimes overall dropped about 5 percent. The downward trend in overall crime started for years before the pandemic.

A grappling with the trend that has the widest impact on the U.S. population — a drop in major crimes overall — was buried beneath an avalanche of words about a spike in a subset of that data. It is devastating to the more than 21,000 families who suffered the loss of a loved one to a homicide last year. Their stories must be told. We should be concerned about such spikes and explain them to our audiences. But it is imperative that we place them in the proper context and framing and remind our audiences that for all the headline-grabbing national numbers, crime, to the everyday American outside of politics, is a localized story. Not every neighborhood is affected the same way.

For comparison, there were nearly two times as many vehicle fatalities last year than homicides, a seven percent jump from 2019. That happened despite there being fewer people driving because of Covid.

There were more than four times as many drug overdoses than homicides. The increase in drug overdoses matched homicide’s one-year 30 percent jump.

How does this complicate the homicide story? Is the real story not that there was a spike in homicides but that people already on the margins were pushed over the edge by the shock of 2020 while sparing the rest of us from the worst aspects of last year’s struggles? Is that why suicides among Black people rose even as the overall suicide rate declined? (Racial disparities also showed up in Covid deaths and ICU visits.)

Not only that, such stories elevated the voices of law enforcement officials speculating that the rise in homicides was caused in part by the George Floyd protests and progressive policies such as bail reform, among other things. The story does note that the upheaval caused by the pandemic is likely a contributing factor.

But nowhere does it deal with the obvious contradiction. If a rise in homicides can be blamed on such things as fewer cops on the beat, does that mean fewer cops on the beat — caused by illness and less-proactive officers in the face of intense scrutiny — was also the reason major crimes overall fell?

This isn’t a distinction without a difference. How we frame crime stories affects the public’s perception of their safety, which affects political outcomes and policy decisions that can make things worse for families on the margins. Unnecessarily harsh policing and the premature scuttling of promising anti-crime programs can be the result of sensationalized, unfocused, or superficial crime reporting. I’ve seen it in the coverage of the “defund the police” movement.

Many journalists point to survey data showing that even majorities of Black people are against defunding the police. But a survey taken last year during the George Floyd unrest showed a more complex picture, with Black people saying they want a strong police presence in their neighborhoods to fight crime — even though they feel unsafe when they see a police officer.

I’m from a Black family and community that has suffered from street-level violence — including homicide — but also police brutality. That’s why, though I am among the majority of Black people who see the value of police, I understand the importance of the defund the police movement and why it resonates even among some of those advocating for an increased police presence in their neighborhoods.

Because I know that crime, even murder, is astoundingly difficult to predict or prevent.

Because I know that police violence contributes to broader violence because it convinces people to distrust the system and take matters into their own hands.

If our news stories are not grappling with that level of nuance, they need to be rewritten or not published at all.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports