Cities got deadlier in 2020: What's behind the spike in homicides?

Perhaps what we saw in 2020 (and, in many cities, continued to see through the first quarter of 2021) has more to do with a combination of factors related to policing and criminal justice.

For starters, recent years have seen a notable decline in the number of police on the beat. In a September 2019 report, the Police Executive Research Forum outlined what it declared a “workforce crisis.” A robust body of research has thoroughly illustrated that more police means less crime — a finding at odds with ever-more-popular calls to “defund the police.” It stands to reason that a significant decline in the sizes of the nation’s police forces could have helped set the stage for the violent crime uptick. There is also reason to believe that — in part because of the anti-police sentiments that characterized last summer’s protests — the cops we have left became less proactive.

As for criminal justice more broadly, states and cities across the country (albeit to varying degrees) have experimented with various reform efforts in recent years. Examples include the expansion of pretrial release through new restrictions on cash bail; the election of so-called “progressive” prosecutors — many of whom have, among other things, diverted or declined to prosecute more cases and used their offices to reduce sentences by refusing to pursue certain kinds of enhancements; the decriminalization of certain “quality of life” offenses; new restrictions on prosecutions of juveniles; the elimination of some mandatory minimum sentences, and new restrictions on certain kinds of police activity.