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Official 2020 FBI data shows highest single-year murder increase in recorded history

The numbers reflect rising violent crime since the start of the pandemic, which has been felt in the Twin Cities. At the same time, property crimes fell.

MINNEAPOLIS — New FBI data published this week reveals a nearly 30% increase in murders nationwide compared to 2019, the highest single-year spike in recorded history and one that was felt deeply in the state of Minnesota.

The release of the bureau's "Crime in the United States, 2020" report offers the clearest glimpse to date into violent crime trends that have troubled community leaders since the start of the pandemic. The violent crime rate as a whole, according to the report, rose by more than five percent, the first single-year spike in four years. Preliminary data shows the murder rate nationwide continues to increase in 2021, though not as dramatically as last year and still below peak 1990s levels based on population. 

In Minnesota, the BCA already released data this summer showing a 58% jump in murders in 2020, driven in part by significant increases in Minneapolis and St. Paul. 

At the same time, however, overall crime dropped in 2020 compared to the previous year, including a property crime rate decrease of 8.1%.

"I think that 2020 was such an unusual year for any kind of official statistics," said Chris Uggen, a criminologist and Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota. "Essentially, we learned that crime overall had declined in 2020, and that was sort of a continuation of a longer-term trend. But also, that homicide had a real significant spike – up 29% nationally – which is quite a bit higher than we normally see in year-to-year fluctuations." 

At the start of the pandemic, Uggen said criminologists had predicted a decrease in some property crimes such as residential burglary, since people would be at home more often. To an extent, they also anticipated a possible rise in domestic violence. 

It seems more difficult to pinpoint 2020's rise in murders, but experts generally agree the lockdowns and lingering uncertainty of the pandemic played a major role. 

"I'd say it's very speculative at this point, but, one thing to bear in mind is that the effects of the pandemic, we all know, were super uneven. Some folks could work at home and do Zoom," Uggen said. "Others weren't in a fortunate position like that."

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Dr. David Thomas, a professor of forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University and former longtime police officer, attributed the violent crime trends to the pandemic, social media disputes, and riots that erupted across the country.

"All of it plays a part," Thomas said. "There's a lot of stressors that under normal conditions, the average person would not be experiencing. You throw all that into the pool and that's what you end up with. It results in violent crime going up."

Thomas also acknowledged the strained relationship between police and the communities they serve, accelerated by the murder of George Floyd. 

"To find where they work with the community and find their niche again, I think that's going to take a couple of years before they get there," Thomas said. "Policing has to reimagine itself and figure out where they need to go."

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