By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

Sadly, 2020 was the deadliest year in United States history, primarily due to the coronavirus pandemic. The year also included unprecedented civil unrest following the police shooting deaths of several Black Americans, massive job losses, and varying personal restrictions due to the deadly COVID-19 virus.

[Podcast: Police Response to the Capitol Riots]

Another major factor that set 2020 apart was the number of homicides. As Time magazine reported, the year was one of America’s most violent in decades as shootings rose dramatically with over 19,000 people killed in firearms-related incidents.

There Were More than 600 Shootings in the U.S. in 2020 that Involved Four or More People

While there were no large-scale mass shootings last year, shooting incidents did increase dramatically. Time pointed out that there were more than 600 shootings in the United States in 2020 that involved four or more people shot in the same incident. That’s the most in the past five years and represents an increase of nearly 50% compared to 2019. According to the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, homicide rates increased 42% during the summer and 34% in the fall compared to the same seasons in 2019.

Understanding Why We Are Seeing an Increase in Violent Homicides

The coronavirus pandemic has changed policing in terms of police interactions with their communities. To help reduce the spread of the disease, officers are less likely to patrol on foot in crowded areas where people gather. The pandemic, along with prior police recruitment challenges, has led to staffing shortages, which can negatively affect the police presence on the streets.

[Related: The Many Challenges for Law Enforcement in 2020]

Chief Michel Moore of the Los Angeles Police Department said, “There’s a sense that the criminal justice system has been so adversely impacted by this pandemic [t]hat the deterrent value of being captured or being arrested and brought before the criminal justice system just simply is not there.”

Undoubtedly, the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on the rising homicide rates. In September, half of adults who said they lost their job due to the pandemic were still unemployed.

According to the Pew Research Center, one in four adults has had trouble paying bills since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in January 2020. Unemployment and housing insecurity have resulted in higher rates of domestic violence; It is likely that stress over financial matters contributed to the violent increase.

Another contributor could be that the coronavirus pandemic handicapped organizations that work to reduce community violence. Also, limitations on mental health outreach initiatives, social programs, and de-escalation initiatives were also affected by pandemic-caused closures and health restrictions.

In addition, violent criminals were released from prison early due to the pandemic. In Florida, a released inmate murdered someone the day after being freed.

It is still too early to identify the precise explanation for the increase of homicides in 2020, but it is likely a combination of various factors. The stress and implications of the pandemic may continue through 2021, despite the arrival of several new and apparently effective vaccines. In any event, researchers, law enforcement, and other key community stakeholders must continue to seek answers for the inordinate increase in violence last year.

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