Fact check: No evidence defunding police to blame for homicide increases, experts say

·12 min read

The claim: 12 major cities led by Democratic mayors broke homicide records in 2021, a result of trying to defund the police

Some conservative commentators on social media are blaming the "defund the police" movement for a recent spike in homicide rates.

"12 major cities broke homicide records this year," reads text in a Dec. 16 Facebook post from a page called The Proud Republicans. "They are ALL led by Democrat mayors. This is what happens when you try to 'defund the police.'"

The post, which conservative content creator Benny Johnson originally tweeted Dec. 15, racked up more than 700 shares within two weeks. Similar claims have accumulated thousands of additional interactions on Facebook and Instagram, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.

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Between 2019 and 2020, the U.S. recorded its highest increase in the national homicide rate in modern history. And in 2021, 12 cities did break their annual homicide records.

However, most of those cities did not substantively cut their 2021 police spending as part of a defunding initiative. While it's too soon to say for sure, experts told USA TODAY a combination of social unrest, rising firearm sales, economic stress and other pandemic-related factors could be behind the spike in homicides.

"In a nutshell, there doesn’t appear to be evidence that the defunding movement has caused violent crime increases," David Carter, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, said in an email.

Not all cities defunded police

As evidence to support the claim, Johnson and The Proud Republicans sent USA TODAY articles reporting that 12 cities hit all-time homicide records in 2021.

The reports indeed identify the 12 cities as Albuquerque, New Mexico; Austin, Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Columbus; Indianapolis; Louisville, Kentucky; Philadelphia; Portland, Oregon; Rochester, New York; St. Paul, Minnesota; Toledo, Ohio and Tucson, Arizona.

But the blame here is misplaced – most of those cities did not substantively cut their 2021 police spending as part of a defunding initiative.

Defunding the police generally means taking money away from police departments and, in many cases, reallocating it to social programs or other city initiatives. The movement grew in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin sparked nationwide protests.

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Portland was among the first cities to defund its police department. In June 2020, the city cut $15 million from its police budget for the following fiscal year.

While some of the cities that hit homicide records in 2021 followed suit, others did not commit to defunding initiatives. Several actually increased funding for the police.

Here's a look at 2021 police funding in each of the other cities mentioned in the news reports:

Some of the cities that cut police funding as the result of a defunding initiative have since increased the budgets of their police departments.

In November 2021, Portland added $5.2 million back to its police department. In August 2021, Austin City Council members restored police funding to its highest level ever for the following fiscal year.

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Each of the cities referenced in the post is led by a Democratic mayor. But experts told USA TODAY that's a spurious correlation.

"Many – most – large cities have Democrat mayors," Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said in an email. "There are many cities with Democrat mayors that are not on this list, so to suggest there is a ‘cause and effect’ is pretty irresponsible."

A protester demands the defunding of police during a rally for the late George Floyd outside Barclays Center on Oct. 14, 2020, in New York.
A protester demands the defunding of police during a rally for the late George Floyd outside Barclays Center on Oct. 14, 2020, in New York.

Effect of defunding police on homicide rates not yet known, experts say

In cities that have defunded the police and seen a spike in homicides, there's no evidence the two are connected.

"It is simply too early to tell if such policies are having an impact," Emma Fridel, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University, said in an email. "Correlation does not equal causation."

Fridel, who studies homicide, said using one or two years of data to highlight a trend is "essentially useless" because homicide is rare relative to other crimes. Multiple years of data is needed to determine whether there is a concerning increase or decrease in homicides, she said.

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Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California-Irvine, told USA TODAY she's not aware of any data that illustrates the effect of defunding the police on homicide rates. But older research suggests there isn't a definitive connection.

A March 2019 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Criminology & Public Policy analyzed the effect of de-policing on homicide rates. In 53 large cities from 2010-2015, researchers found "no evidence of an effect of arrest rates on city homicide rates for any offense category for any year in this period."

"The results of our analysis reveal that declining rates of arrest did not produce the rise in homicide levels," the study authors wrote.

Experts told USA TODAY there are several plausible explanations for the recent spike in homicide rates.

"The pandemic created significant strain, stress and uncertainty – especially in the most vulnerable neighborhoods," Novak said. "George Floyd – and other events – created a legitimacy crisis between people and the police."

During the coronavirus pandemic, more Americans purchased guns, which Kubrin said can escalate a non-lethal crime to a homicide. And police departments nationwide are understaffed – a problem that predates both the pandemic and recent calls to defund the police.

However, experts say it's too soon to single out one reason for the recent rise in homicides.

"Could defunding be a correlate and a cause? Theoretically, of course," Kubrin said. "But my sense is that, even if it plays a role, it's probably a small one."

Our rating: Partly false

Based on our research, we rate PARTLY FALSE the claim that 12 major cities led by Democratic mayors broke homicide records in 2021, a result of trying to defund the police.

It's true that 12 cities led by Democratic mayors broke homicide records in 2021, but it's unclear what exactly is behind the spike. Most of those cities did not substantively cut their police spending as part of a defunding initiative – contradicting the claim's core assertion.

While it's possible defunding the police played a role in the homicide increase, experts say there's no research proving that's the case. It's too soon to know for sure, but the spike may be the result of pandemic-related factors, including rising firearm sales and economic stress, experts say.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Police funding not linked to homicide spikes, experts say

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