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What’s behind the sharp rise in murders across the U.S.?

Murders across the U.S. have skyrocketed in 2020, while nonviolent offenses have largely dropped, according to publicly available crime data. But efforts to curb homicides come at a time when police departments are facing both staffing shortages because of the COVID-19 pandemic and lingering distrust in communities of color following months of nationwide protests. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Across the U.S., murders have skyrocketed this year, while nonviolent offenses have largely dropped. That is according to publicly available crime data.

    But the efforts to curb homicides comes at a time when police departments are facing both staffing shortages because of the pandemic and lingering distrust in communities of color following months of nationwide protests.

    John Yang explores what is behind the latest trends.

  • John Yang:

    Khalilah Corey's 19-year-old son, Wanya, dreamed of becoming a journalist. In his free time, he loved playing basketball in their Minneapolis neighborhood.

  • Khalilah Corey:

    That's kind of how my neighborhood got to know us. I was the mother, the single mother with five, and the boys outside playing basketball.

  • John Yang:

    On October 11, Corey got a text from Wanya saying he was heading home after playing at a nearby court.

  • Khalilah Corey:

    It was my middle child's birthday. He was turning 12. And, later on that day, we were going to celebrate at home, like we do.

    We were waiting for Wanya to come. When he didn't come, it was — it was devastating.

  • John Yang:

    Wanya had been killed in a drive-by shooting.

    Minneapolis, still reeling from this summer's police killing of George Floyd, has had 80 murders so far this year, a level not seen since the 1990s.

    Despite the uptick, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously earlier this month to shift nearly $8 million from next year's police budget.

    I spoke with Corey, who's an early education teacher, by Skype.

    I mean, what do you think happened?

  • Khalilah Corey:

    I don't even know. I mean, just from what I'm hearing from the police, mistaken identity. What happened to him is unexplainable. They don't have any leads.

  • John Yang:

    Tragically, Khalilah Corey has felt this pain before. She grew up on Chicago's West Side and lost two brothers to gun violence. She says she moved her family to Minneapolis six years ago, in hopes of giving her children a better life.

  • Khalilah Corey:

    So, it's just — it's more — more trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma. And I just — I don't want my kids to live in fear.

  • John Yang:

    The 80 percent spike in Minneapolis homicides this year is part of a nationwide surge in murders during the pandemic.

  • Jeff Asher:

    We're seeing something historic here.

  • John Yang:

    Jeff Asher is a crime analyst in New Orleans who has studied 2020 data from more than 50 cities.

  • Jeff Asher:

    And in those cities, murder is up about 35, 36 percent this year relative to last year, which, to put that in some perspective, the largest national year-to-year change we have ever had is a 12.5 percent increase

  • John Yang:

    While most crime, including home burglaries and robberies, has gone down, murder rates have risen sharply, both in large cities like New York, Chicago and Seattle, and in smaller ones like Lubbock, Texas, and Greensboro, North Carolina.

    And last month, Los Angeles reached a grim milestone, for the first time in more than a decade, 300 homicides.

  • Michel Moore:

    This is a pandemic of violence.

  • John Yang:

    Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore says increased gang violence, and the effects of the pandemic has led to a 30 percent increase in killings in the nation's second largest city.

  • Michel Moore:

    The loss of jobs, the loss of people's source of income, of their stability, of their home, of just a sense of crisis that they're in. We have seen a dramatic increase, historic increase in the number of gun sale.

  • John Yang:

    Like in many U.S. cities, COVID-19 has led to police staffing shortages and handcuffed efforts to target violence.

  • Michel Moore:

    We're not having meetings, social interactions and engagements that we would normally have to help stem this. We have had more than 800 of our personnel that have come down with the COVID virus.

    We have two that we have lost, two of our employees, one an officer and one a detention officer. So, we know firsthand the impact of this pandemic.

  • John Yang:

    Another major factor? Lingering distrust between law enforcement and communities of color after officers killed Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

  • Darren Faulkner:

    There's a huge trust factor that we are seeing in the community as it pertains to law enforcement. And that didn't just start with the death of George Floyd. I will say that that has definitely complicated things further.

  • John Yang:

    Reverend Darren Faulkner works with at-risk individuals in Kansas City, Missouri, which this year has set a new record for homicides. He says many of the people he works with are afraid to call the police.

  • Darren Faulkner:

    Fear of the police, fear to call the police. I will call 911 if I am dying. Anything short of that, I'm afraid I'm going to go to jail if I call them. And so, yes, that's a — that's an issue that's been longstanding in the community that I serve.

  • John Yang:

    Some of the biggest spikes in homicide have been in cities that had large protests over racial justice and police killings. In Louisville, for example, murders are up 77 percent, in Milwaukee, almost 100 percent.

  • Richard Rosenfeld:

    We have to be more speculative about the connection between protest activity on the one hand and community violence on the other.

  • John Yang:

    Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld says, when a community loses trust in the police, violence can follow.

  • Richard Rosenfeld:

    It could be that police have been redeployed to address the protest activity from their normal routines.

    It could also be that communities that have always had a somewhat fraught relationship with the police, in those communities during periods of widespread intense protests, that relationship deteriorates even further, street justice takes hold, and we see an increase in violent crime.

  • John Yang:

    Despite the sharp increase in murders, the nation's violent crime rate is nowhere near its peak 30 years ago.

  • Richard Rosenfeld:

    There's been a big crime drop since the early '90s, with some fits and starts. And we're seeing a spike right now, but that spike, generally speaking, is taking cities back to where they were perhaps five years ago, five to 10 years ago.

    There are some exceptions of cities that are seeing crime — violent crime rates that they haven't seen in decades. But, by and large, that's not the case.

  • John Yang:

    Back in Minneapolis, though, Khalilah Corey says violence in her neighborhood is the worst she's ever seen.

  • Khalilah Corey:

    Now I'm even more scared to even leave the house, take the kids out, because it's been so much violence, like so much. I feel like I'm back in Chicago.

  • John Yang:

    And she says life now seems unimaginable without her oldest son.

  • Khalilah Corey:

    Any time I was sad, he would come in and he'd be like, "Mom" — he would hold out his arms and say, "Mom, bring it in, bring it in."

  • And I’m like:

    "No, I don't want a hug."

  • He’s like:

    "Come on. I'm going to do it anyway. Bring it in."

    And he'd hug me so tight, and I couldn't do anything. I couldn't be angry anymore. I couldn't think about anything, except for that hug.

  • John Yang:

    Another victim in a year that has been marked by so many deaths.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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