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Violent Crime Soared During the Pandemic. But Does the Political Debate Reflect the Data?

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Police officers put up yellow caution tape outside a spa.
Oakland police officers prepare to put up caution tape outside the scene of a shooting at Kume Spa on Feb. 1, 2022, in Oakland. (Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

With major national and statewide increases in murders since the start of the pandemic, crime is shaping up to be a big political football in 2022. In California, it’s already dominating debate in the race for attorney general, and has largely fueled the recall attempts of at least two reform-minded county district attorneys.

Politicians and activists are seizing on the issue for good reason: Polls show voters being increasingly concerned about crime in their communities.

While this is often framed as a red-versus-blue debate, the data shows much broader trends — like the increase in murders — playing out across the nation, regardless of the political makeup or the individual policies of a particular city, county or state. Nationally, there was an unprecedented spike in murders in 2020 — up nearly 30% over 2019, marking the largest single-year increase ever recorded in the U.S.

A line chart showing violent crime and property crime rates
Source: CA Department of Justice (Chart by Matthew Green/KQED)

But despite that troubling surge, the national murder rate appeared to begin receding in 2021. Meanwhile violent crime overall — and homicides in particular — remains at or near record lows throughout the U.S. The same is true in California

“I think 2020 was an outlier. California was not an outlier,” said Steven Raphael, an economist at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. “There doesn't appear to be much that's happening here that didn't happen in the rest of the country as well.”

Bearing the brunt 

Republicans, law enforcement officials and other critics of the criminal justice reforms California has made over the past decade are seizing on recent high-profile property and hate crimes and murders to attack those efforts.


But Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said there’s no connection between spikes in murders and the political ideology of an individual prosecutor. And there’s also no proof, he said, that states that have embraced reforms like shorter prison sentences are seeing more violence than other states.

He noted the uniform uptick in murders across states in 2020.

“When you see nearly every city go up like we did in 2020, it's really difficult under those conditions to attribute the increase to any particular policy in any particular city,” he said. “Everybody was going up.”

Rosenfeld pointed to a key factor that hasn’t changed over time and tracks across the nation: Men of color, particularly Black men, are the most likely to be victims of murder.

“The overall level of violence, and homicide in particular, has gone way up in the last couple of years [since the pandemic began]. But the communities and the population groups that suffer most — and have historically — from high levels of violence, haven't changed,” he said. “It's young men of color. It's disadvantaged communities of color that have borne the brunt of the increase.”

“So we're not seeing a spreading out of violence to other population groups — the elderly, for example — or into affluent communities,” he added. What we're seeing is an intensification of the violence in the very communities where historically it's been quite high.”

Jasmine Hardison has experienced that heartbreaking reality firsthand — it’s her job to show up at the scene of homicides in Oakland, and help family members and other survivors cope. Hardison lost her own son to gun violence in 2016 and now works for Youth ALIVE!, a violence prevention nonprofit in the city, as program coordinator for the Khadafy Washington Project.

Oakland, which has long struggled with gun violence, recorded the biggest jump in murders in the Bay Area during the pandemic — an increase that actually began in the city pre-pandemic, in 2019, and continued to rise into 2021. The 2021 per-capita murder rate in Oakland dwarfs that of any other city in the region — it's nearly double the rate of the next closest cities, Richmond and Vallejo, according to data tabulated by The San Francisco Chronicle.

Hardison said there’s no one factor that seems to be driving Oakland’s increase in violence — though she notes it’s disproportionately affecting the same Black and Brown communities that have long borne the brunt of crime spikes.

She doesn’t believe that more or fewer police on the streets is the answer. Instead, she said she’d like to see officers work more closely with the community.

“I do think that we need to build better relationships,” Hardison said, “because a lot of times [the police department] doesn't even have that interaction with the community until there's a homicide. And then at that time, everyone is pretty much treated like a criminal.”

Not as simple as left or right politics

Hardison’s observations speak to what some see as the oversimplification of the issue — one they say both sides in the political debate are getting wrong.

“We appear to be coming down off just a truly momentous increase in violence that can't be washed away by reformers,” Rosenfeld said. “It can't be willy-nilly attributed to progressive policies. It's far more widespread than either of those explanations can handle.”

Rosenfeld said the current political debate over crime is dismaying because both progressives and conservatives are guilty of reducing a complex and tragic situation to political talking points.

“On the one hand, we have people who would abolish the police, whatever that could possibly mean, or greatly defund the police,” he said. “On the other hand, we have those who argue that every time there's a crime increase, it just has to be related to the election of a progressive prosecutor or the appointment of a progressive police chief or liberals run amok in the policy circles in the city.”

To understand this debate in California, you need to look back at how things have changed the past few decades. Until about 10 years ago, California embraced a more conservative, law-and-order approach to criminal justice that leaned heavily on long prison sentences and resulted in overcrowded state prisons. After a U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering the state to reduce its prison population, Democratic state leaders began passing reforms aimed at lowering the number of inmates and stressing rehabilitation over punishment.

A line chart of violent crime rates in the U.S. and California since 1986
Source: FBI Crime Data Explorer (Matthew Green/KQED)

Much of the backlash against those changes comes from law enforcement and the state’s Republican politicians. For example, police and conservatives have long pushed back against the changes instituted by Proposition 47. The ballot measure, passed by voters in 2014, made most drug possessions a misdemeanor instead of a felony, and directed the state to use the savings (from not imprisoning as many people) on rehabilitation programs. It also brought California in line with most other states by increasing the threshold for misdemeanor shoplifting from $450 to $900.

As brazen shoplifting instances were caught on camera this past year, many opponents of the measure blamed it as a driving factor, saying criminals were taking advantage of what they call the state's more lenient laws. Critics have also linked reforms like Proposition 47 to violent crime increases.

The rural-urban divide

But statewide data in California reveals that pandemic-related spikes in violence did not spare rural, conservative communities, which in some instances actually experienced relatively larger increases in violent crime during the pandemic than did urban centers with more progressive criminal justice policies.

In California, three tiny rural, conservative counties — Mono, Modoc and Tehama — experienced the largest jumps in per capita murders between 2019 and 2020 (although the actual numbers of murders and other violent crime incidents were still relatively low, as these counties have tiny populations).

Meanwhile, Los Angeles and San Francisco counties — where the progressive-minded top prosecutors are both facing recall attempts — did not see huge spikes in violence.

In larger urban areas, the biggest per capita increases in murders were in Vallejo, Inglewood and San Bernardino — which represent a mix of political leanings.

Rosenfeld and other criminologists say the broader homicide trends are likely driven by a confluence of factors, including the economic woes and broader social disruptions brought on by the pandemic, as well as social unrest sparked in 2020 by the murder of George Floyd. He also attributed the uptick to a pullback in policing due to COVID-19 concerns, staffing shortages and political pressure against aggressive policing practices. Increases in drug sales and use and, possibly, increased access to guns also played a role, he said.

What history tells us

Criminologists say that many factors over the past two years that were related to or caused by the pandemic have historically been linked to an increase in violence.

Among them: the wild fluctuations in the economy since the pandemic began, which hit communities of color especially hard, as well as the nationwide increase in drug use, particularly methamphetamines and fentanyl.

“We know that beginning in the mid '60s and since then, economic conditions have played a role [in violent crime rates] — in particular, inflation,” Rosenfeld said, noting that as inflation stabilized, so, too, did crime rates. “The crack-cocaine era [of the 1980s and 1990s] saw an increase in violent crime associated with the drug markets of the time. And in research I've done and published, the opioid epidemic has also pushed up homicide rates in U.S. counties.”

But there are also factors that are less understood. Take the nationwide racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 that coincided with the increase in homicides. Researchers have tracked since the 1960s the correlation between social unrest — often sparked by conflicts with police — and violent crime, Rosenfeld said.

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It was particularly evident after the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked by the killing of Michael Brown — a young Black man — by a white police officer, he noted.

“And then we saw homicide rates move up very abruptly immediately after George Floyd was killed in that video that went viral in 2020,” he said. “The connection between widespread social unrest and increases in violent crime, that connection is pretty solid.”

But why that connection exists isn’t fully understood.

UC Berkeley’s Raphael noted that homicides generally increase in summer months, when the weather is warmer, the days are longer, and kids are out of school. But he agreed that the rapid spike in homicides in the summer of 2020 was well beyond seasonal fluctuations.

“It was certainly the case that the increase in homicide seemed to correspond with the murder of George Floyd and the protests that occurred,” he said. “The timing suggests that something happened, whether it was people unwilling to cooperate with the police or just a general sense of … social malaise that was leading to more violence, or police being more apprehensive.”

The policing factor

That gets to another factor: policing. While there’s not a lot of research showing a direct connection between crime rates and the length of criminal sentences pursued by prosecutors, there is evidence that suggests police presence can drive down crime, especially, said Rosenfeld, if that policing is targeted at high-risk spots or individuals likely to engage in violence or to become victims.

“There does appear to be an impact, that when you have more police presence, there's lower crime rates,” Raphael added.

While “defund the police” was a major liberal rallying cry during the summer of 2020 — with many Democratic leaders pledging to reduce police budgets — most of those cuts never ultimately materialized, even in liberal cities like San Francisco.

Even so, many police departments have seen huge numbers of retirements and attrition, rendering them understaffed.

Rosenfeld said tackling endemic violence will require those critical of law enforcement and those in law enforcement to work together.

A woman sits at a table against a brick wall.
Jasmine Hardison, a violence interrupter for Youth ALIVE!, in Oakland on Feb. 14, 2022. (Marisa Lago/KQED)

“If police-community relationships were improved, people would be more likely to cooperate with the police when [they] are attempting to investigate crime,” he said. “That cooperation would lead to higher arrest rates and more and more and more successful prosecutions, and that could help to bring down crime.”

Jasmine Hardison, the Oakland violence response worker, said she and her colleagues at Youth ALIVE! will continue to not only support victims, but also work to interrupt the violence.

“It’s really critical that families get this type of service because when you're faced with a crisis like this, you don't know what to do. You don't know where to turn,” she said.

Hardison said her hope is that police and the court system can provide those families justice.

She said most families need financial assistance, as well as help with the logistics of laying a loved one to rest. They often need help connecting with grief counselors and other mental health support. But sometimes, they also need help making sure the cycle of violence doesn’t continue.


“We've encountered families that when we get to the scene, there is a lot of hostility — which is to be expected,” Hardison said. “And that's a time when our violence interrupters approach families and offer that mediation ... in hopes that families don't go out, you know, and try to retaliate.”

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