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Did Homicide Rates Really Rise in 2015?

The near-unprecedented rise in homicide rates in several U.S. cities last year has been confirmed, but the causes are harder to nail down.

By Kate Wheeling


(Photo: Larry W. Smith/Getty Images)

In 2015, the long-term trend of falling crime rates appeared to come to a halt in several cities across the United States, as local media outlets reported a rise in homicide rates. The uptick occurred amid a nationwide reckoning with police misconduct, leading to speculation that increased scrutiny made officers less likely to engage with the public, allowing criminal behavior to flourish — also known as the “Ferguson Effect.” But without comprehensive data on homicide rates, it’s difficult to evaluate such claims. A report from the National Institute of Justice looked at a sample of 56 large U.S. cities in an attempt to answer two questions: Did the reported rise in homicides actually occur, and, if so, what caused it?

The answer to the first question is simple: yes. In the 56-city sample at least, homicides were nearly 17 percent more frequent in 2015 than the year prior. Just 10 cities accounted for the majority of the increase, with an average 33 percent jump in homicides. But the question of why is more complex. The report considered three potential causes: expanding drug markets, a swelling numbers of released prisoners, and the Ferguson Effect.

Homicides were nearly 17 percent more frequent in 2015 than the year before.

The U.S. is currently facing a drug epidemic — in 2014, the number of overdose deaths topped any other year on record — and past research has linked growing drug markets to violent crime. But the timing of these unfortunate trends doesn’t quite line up: The drug epidemic has been simmering for years, while the homicide rise seems sudden. A similar lag exists between the rise in the number of ex-prisoners back on the streets and homicide rates.

The timing of the homicide rate change seems to support the Ferguson Effect, which has two interpretations: Either police disengage from their duties in the wake of highly publicized scandals, or the public loses faith in the justice system and criminals feel empowered to commit crimes without fear of consequence. But one problem with the Ferguson Effect, in either form, is that it “presupposes a very large effect of policing on crime, large enough to explain homicide increases from de-policing of 50 percent or more in some cities,” University of Missouri-St. Louis professor and report author Richard Rosenfeld writes. “Effect sizes of that magnitude far surpass those revealed in research on the most effective policing strategies to prevent crime.”

It’s likely that all three factors conspired to drive homicide rates up, but without better and current data on crime, demographics, and public opinions, it’s impossible to say what truly caused the increase. The report encourages the Federal Bureau of Investigation to release crime data in a timelier fashion.

“During the 1930s, the FBI released crime data on a monthly basis,” Rosenfeld writes. “Admittedly, there were fewer law enforcement agencies in the 1930s, but the data were entered in pen and ink or on manual typewriters and then sent by the local post office to Washington. If the FBI could release monthly data under those conditions, surely it can do so in an age of electronic data transfer when local police departments routinely post recent crime information on their public websites.”