coronavirus pandemic

Philly's Rise in Homicides Is Bad. In Many Other Cities, It's Even Worse.

Philadelphia ranked 23rd out of 34 American cities in homicide rate increase from 2019 to 2020, according to the final report by National Commission on COVID and Criminal Justice. Midwestern cities saw much of the greatest annual increases.

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In the Southern California city of Chula Vista, homicides jumped from 4 in 2019 to 10 in 2020.

In Chandler, Arizona, outside of Phoenix, homicides rose from 3 to 7 year over year.

In several cities across the Midwest, including Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, and Lincoln and Omaha in Nebraska, slayings also jumped dramatically in 2020, according to data in a new report by the National Commission on COVID and Criminal Justice.

The large increases in murder totals in places like Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles made headlines throughout the coronavirus-plagued year for the terrible scale of hundreds of additional slayings.

But the report released Monday that gathered year-to-year comparisons for 34 American cities big and small found that increasing homicides -- and other violent crime -- could be found almost everywhere.

Philadelphia, despite reaching 499 killings in a single year for only the second time since 1960, saw a year-over-year percent increase that ranked 23rd out of the 34 cities in the data sample cited in the commission's report..

A graphic showing homicide rate increases, by city, in the final report from the Commission on COVID and Criminal Justice released Feb. 1, 2021.

The report indicated that crime trends in Philadelphia could also be found in many of the other cities: higher violent crime totals and decreased property and drug crimes.

The causes, according to the report, are likely linked to:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on daily life
  • Calls for police reform and a decline in arrests for certain crimes
  • Factors not yet understood that could be affected by the pandemic and policing, or that could be unrelated

Thomas Abt, who served as commission director and is a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Council on Criminal Justice, said two major problems emerged at once in 2020, but that solutions that have proven to reduce crime are not utilized enough by police departments across the country.

“We’ve got three serious problems to confront at the same time," Abt said. "We need to get COVID under control, we need to advance police reform, and we need to push evidence-based anti-violence strategies - including both cops and communities - that are proven to work.”

He noted that hotspot policing and targeted enforcement, along in community outreach and social work need to be applied.

"“The thing that’s so frustrating in Philadelphia and other places is that we know what works," said Abt, who is the author of "Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets."

"Again and again, cities like Philadelphia can’t seem to follow the evidence and put together a sustained vision of what successful anti-violence policies should look like," he said.

Last year, as homicides in Philadelphia approached a near-all-time high, Temple University criminologist Jerry Ratcliffe told NBC10 that the pandemic upended people's lives, and, in doing so, changed criminal behavior.

"The best way to understand crime is the change in opportunity, which has come about by wholesale changes during the course of 2020," Ratcliffe said in an interview last November.

Abt said the report's findings lend strong credence to the pandemic's effects on criminal activity.

“I think the trends - that violent crime, particularly homicide, was up but property and drug crimes were down - were consistent across cities, and that’s largely in response to changing activity patterns in response to the pandemic," Abt said.

The commission's findings add to growing research on the pandemic and crime, including gun violence in Philadelphia.

PennMedicine researchers who analyzed emergency room visits during and immediately preceding the pandemic lockdown, as well as five previous years, concluded that the sudden society upheaval caused the surging gun violence.

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