Fueled by gun violence, cities across the US are breaking all-time homicide records this year
Fueled by what both authorities and community leaders say is the easy access to guns, Austin has recorded 88 homicides so far this year, shattering the previous high of 59 in 1984.
“If it’s two people who know each other, clearly there is some contact that has risen to a point now that is being resolved violently instead of being resolved peacefully,” Harris said.
“When you see the numbers spike like this and we’re trying to figure out exactly why that’s happening,” Chacon said, “there’s no clear-cut answer. We haven’t found that one trend that we can really pin this on.”
Austin is part of a worrying trend facing the nation. More than two-thirds of the country’s most populous cities have seen more homicides in 2021 than last year, a continuation of the troubling increase in homicides that began at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, according to a CNN analysis of over 40 major cities.
At least nine major cities have broken their previous annual homicide records with about three weeks left to go in 2021. There have been 513 homicides this year in Philadelphia, higher than the previous total of 503 in 1990. There have been 230 homicides in Indianapolis, breaking the previous record of 215 set just last year.
These increases are not isolated to any particular region of the country. Other cities with record homicide totals include Louisville, Kentucky; Columbus, Ohio; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Tucson, Arizona; Rochester, New York; and Portland, Oregon. Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Nashville are also on pace to reach record homicide numbers by the end of the year.
Los Angeles recorded 352 homicides so far this year, and Chicago has seen 756, with year-to-date increases of 12% and 4% respectively. In Houston, homicides are up 18% from 2020.
While one-year increases don’t always portend a significant spike in crime, almost all the largest cities in the United States have seen an increase in homicides from 2019, sustaining a sharp rise that began last year.
Spike in violent crime is the result of ‘perfect storm’
There were more than 21,500 murders last year, a total not seen since the mid 1990s. But the murder rate in 2020 was about 6.5 per 100,000 people, about 40% below what it was in the 1980s and 1990s, when homicides peaked in the United States.
“The pandemic, like community gun violence, concentrates among the poorest and most disenfranchised people,” Abt said. “So those communities are doubly impacted, not only by Covid-19, but by gun violence.”
At the same time, the institutions that are responsible for responding to violence, including police and community organizations, were also placed under stress and pressure, Abt added, referring to the phenomenon as a “perfect storm.”
“We’re seeing police pulling back in some cities from some of their discretionary law enforcement activities and we’re also seeing communities pulling back from their ongoing collaboration and cooperation with police,” he said. “When you have that divide between cops and communities, violence tends to go up.”
The final factor experts say is causing violent crime to go up is a “huge surge in gun sales that began at the beginning of the pandemic and has not slowed down,” he said.
A small but significant number of these guns are “ending up in the wrong hands and being used in gun crimes,” Abt added.
“People are quickly pulling a gun out and without thought of repercussions and without the thought that you are truly ending a life,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins said another issue is social media “extremists” who need access to mental health resources.
“When you don’t have anyone to talk to you off a cliff or you are so geared in social media, that plays another role,” she said.
Experts have recommended looking into community-based approaches to reduce violent crime.
“Police need to be at the table and police are part of the solution, but they are not the whole solution,” Abt said. “You need community-based organizations and law enforcement agencies working together.”
Shooting incidents — both fatal and non-fatal — have increased in nearly all major US cities where data was available, according to a CNN analysis. Guns were the most used weapon in every city where information was published detailing the method of homicide.
According to the FBI report, the number of homicides last year began to escalate during the summer months, peaking in June and July and remaining at high levels after that. Capturing a full picture of homicide in the United States is nearly impossible — the UCR report is the most comprehensive data set available, but participation by law enforcement agencies is voluntary.
Last year, only 85% of the country’s more than 18,000 agencies submitted their data to the FBI. The 2021 UCR report will likely not publish until late next year.
With just three weeks remaining in 2021, it seems almost certain that there will be more murders this year than last. However, the rate of increase in homicides does appear to be slowing.
A renewed focus on conflict resolution in Austin
The homicide rate in Austin peaked in 1982, and has gradually declined since then. It remained remarkably steady even as the city’s population more than doubled, hovering between three and five homicides per 100,000 people.
In the 1980s, Austin’s homicide rate stood at almost 16 per 100,000 residents, before slowly declining in the late 90s and early 2000s. This year, however, the homicide rate has jumped up to 8.5, close to the rates seen in the late 80s and early 90s.
Harris, of the Austin Justice Coalition, said the accessibility of guns in Texas and states across the country has resulted in more deadly encounters. “Maybe if we were sending other types of resources other than just police into our communities, we would be having different outcomes,” Harris told CNN.
Chacon said the violence is likely the result of widespread anxiety and uncertainty due to the pandemic as well as the proliferation of illegally owned weapons on the street, which makes it “a lot easier to commit very serious offenses.”
The Austin Police Department is working to combat violent crime by using its real-time crime center to connect on-duty officers with databases at police headquarters as well as the city’s new office of violence prevention.
Police officers and community advocates in Austin are putting a renewed focus on conflict resolution to combat crime.
“We really need to invest in more resources, and our organization is very much focused on trying to give more people tools and access to conflict resolution to help prevent the violence before it occurs,” Harris said.
Illegal guns pose major challenge for law enforcement
Baltimore was one of the few major cities that saw a decrease in homicides between 2019 and 2020, after a record-setting 348 in 2019. However, homicides rose from 2020 to this year, with a year-to-date total of 320 killings.
Harrison said that chiefs across the country have been saying the “lack of consequences and the lack of fear of any consequences” in the climate as a result of the pandemic is a significant factor in the increase in violence, as well as the disruption of the criminal justice system.
“Two-thirds of the criminal justice system were not operating at full capacity like policing was and when you put that all together, here we are again seeing a rise in crime,” he said.
For 18 months, grand juries as well as state and federal trials were largely halted, Harrison said, and the system is just now “resuming deploying consequences for people who committed these bad acts.”
The city’s population has been in a steady decline for decades, down 20% from 735,632 residents in 1990. The homicide rate jumped in 2015 after two decades of steady, year-over-year reductions in murders — and has remained elevated ever since. As of November 30, there have been 921 fatal and non-fatal shootings in the city this year.
The Baltimore Police Department is on pace to recover as many guns as it did in 2020 with 1,302 this year after seizing 1,334 guns last year, according to Harrison.
The department recovered only nine ghost guns in 2018 — but as of late November this year, officers recovered 294, according to Harrison.
“People can order them online in parts and some of them at home,” he said. “All you need is a credit card and enough money to buy it and its untraceable. So, it’s becoming more difficult for law enforcement to really hold people accountable for having and using these guns until the crime is committed.”
Without a serial number, it’s a major challenge for law enforcement to find the original owner or purchaser of the ghost gun that can help police trace the ballistics to other possible crimes, Harrison said.
The strategy is designed to provide offenders with a pathway “away from a life of crime” and one that includes helping them with their specific needs, such as education, mental illness, crime, addiction and housing, according to Harrison.
“If they are not addressed, we may stop one thing but we’re allowing someone else to continue the cycle of violence,” Harrison said.