U.S. sees the highest jump in homicides in 100 years, CDC says

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The homicide rate across the country rose 30% from 2019 to 2020, marking the highest increase in modern history, according to CDC findings released Wednesday.

Crime statistics have indicated the rise, but the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics group examined public health data, including death certificates, to confirm the increase. The previous largest increase in the U.S. homicide rate was a 20% rise recorded from 2000 to 2001 because of the September 11 terrorist attacks, according to the CDC.

“A 30% increase is outstanding, really,” Dr. Robert Anderson, NCHS Chief of Mortality Statistics, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Places that haven’t traditionally had high homicides rates have had increases.”

The CDC’s data was released a week after FBI findings that showed the number of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter offenses across the country increased 29.4% in 2020.

“While their numbers are a little smaller than ours, their data tends to track ours very closely in terms of trends,” Anderson said. “When we saw the numbers we expected that ours would show the same thing.”

ExploreFBI: Homicide, manslaughter cases increased 29.4% nationwide in 2020

In Atlanta, the rise in homicides was even higher. The Atlanta Police Department investigated 157 homicide cases in 2020, up from 99 in 2019 and the most in more than two decades. This week, the city recorded its 122nd homicide, up from the 106 investigated as of Oct. 5, 2020, APD data shows.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is not seeking a second term, has pointed to what she calls a “COVID crime wave” to explain the deadly surge. Others, including law enforcement agencies, agree though it’s hard to pinpoint the exact causes.

“There are a lot of potential reasons why this happening that are related to the pandemic,” Anderson said.

During the spring of 2020, many metro Atlanta agencies reported decreases in crime when coronavirus concerns closed schools and businesses and Gov. Brian Kemp issued a shelter-in-place order. The lull didn’t last, and police agencies throughout the metro area reported an increase in homicides.

DeKalb County police investigated 129 homicides in 2020, up slightly from 125 in 2019. In a December interview with the AJC, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said anxiety and fear over the coronavirus or finances can contribute to violence, he said.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

“Hungry people do desperate things,” Thurmond said. “And we know that food insecurity is a major issue right now.”

Law enforcement agencies were also limited in their ability to interact with citizens and build relationships, Thurmond said.

“One of the challenges that police departments are having right now is that they can’t interact with the public like they usually do,” he said. “Our goal is to eliminate homicides in DeKalb.”

ExploreHomicides up in parts of metro Atlanta, state in 2020

Tomeka Pless is grieving her 18-year-old son, shot to death in June 2020. Jalanni Pless was killed while selling water bottles, and his mother said the pandemic stopped kids from their normal activities.

“They’re in survival mood,” Tomeka Pless told the AJC in a recent interview. “They’re doing whatever it takes.”

It wasn’t just Atlanta where violence skyrocketed. FBI data showed a marked increase in Georgia’s violent crime rate, outpacing the U.S. average, although more law enforcement agencies submitted information last year than in 2019.

According to the GBI, the increase in reporting was partly a result of a change in the system for submitting the data. The GBI also reached out to Georgia departments to encourage and help them report.

A recent AJC investigation showed that towns and cities across the state also are grappling with homicide spikes. Spalding County, for instance, saw nine killings in 2020, up from one the prior year.

In Atlanta, the police department and Bottoms continue working to curb the violence.

On Monday, the Atlanta City Council passed legislation that will officially establish the Office of Violence Reduction. Bottoms announced in July that she would pursue a $70 million investment into plans to combat violent crime. Some of those funds will go into the new violence reduction office.

Meanwhile, Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant has said the department remains vigilant in fighting crime. Bryant’s summer goals included targeting the hardest-hit areas, addressing gun violence and gangs, and increasing officers’ presence, he said in June. The department has also used social media to spread the word.

Put the guns down,” Atlanta police Deputy Chief Charles Hampton said during an August news conference. “Let’s just be decent human beings.”

APD is also ramping up recruiting efforts to increase the number of officers on the force.


CITY OF ATLANTA HOMICIDES

2016: 111

2017: 79

2018: 88

2019: 99

2020: 157

2021: 122 on Wednesday

Source: APD/FBI crime data