US records largest murder spike in decades as 2020 saw 21K people killed, FBI reports

Dallas sniper shooting
FBI investigators look over the crime scene in Dallas, Texas, July 8, 2016, following a Thursday night shooting incident that killed five police officers. |

Amid the coronavirus pandemic that led to the death of hundreds of thousands in the U.S., America's murder rate rose to the highest level in over two decades in 2020 as the year saw the largest single-year spike in the homicide rate since data started being tracked in the 1960s. 

According to an annual report on crime released by the FBI on Monday, 2020 saw a 29.4% rise in the volume of murder and nonnegligent manslaughter offenses. There was a total of 21,570 homicides, 4,901 more deaths than in 2019.

Additionally, the bureau reports that there were 1,277,696 violent crimes as the estimated number of aggravated assault offenses rose 12.1%

The rate of death by murder was roughly 6.5 per 100,000 in 2020. In 2019, the murder rate was 5.1 per 100,000. The spike comes after there was a slight drop in the murder rate from 2016 to 2018. In 2016, the murder rate was 5.4. And in 2018, the murder rate was at 5.0 per 100,000. 

There is no concise reason for the recent spike in the murder rate. But some surmise that driving factors could include the economic and social tolls presented by the pandemic and increase in gun sales.

"It is a perfect storm," Chief Harold Medina of the Albuquerque Police Department told The New York Times. "There is not just one factor that we can point at to say why we are where we are."

Even with the increase, 2020 saw far fewer murders than the last time homicides peaked in the U.S. during the drug wars in the early 1990s. During that time, the total number of murders remained around 23,000 per year. In 1991, the murder rate was 9.1 per 100,000. By 2000, the homicide rate dropped to 5.5.

A CNN report states that the FBI's Uniform Crime Report provides a set of data reported by law enforcement agencies on crimes that took place in the U.S. However, that data doesn't reflect every crime because every agency can opt-out of submitting their crime reports.

Many agencies chose not to participate in the FBI's process of collecting crime reports for 2020. Roughly 85%, or nearly 15,897 agencies out of over 18,000, participated in the 2020 crime report by submitting their data to the FBI.

The year 2019 marked the 90th anniversary of the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program. The FBI is in the stages of planning to undergo a full transition to a more comprehensive system beginning in 2021.

Despite the high rise in the murder rate in 2020, the FBI data shows that robbery, property offenses and rape crimes declined. 

A 2020 Pew Research study reveals that "most violent and property crimes in the U.S. are not reported to police, and most of the crimes that are reported are not solved."

About 40.9% of violent crimes and 32.5% of household property crimes were reported to authorities in 2019.  

The Pew Research study also states that the primary statistical agency of the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), recognizes that there are multiple reasons crimes go unreported. 

Those include "fear of reprisal," "getting the offender in trouble," a feeling that police "would not or could not do anything to help" and the belief that the crime is "a personal issue or too trivial to report."

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