The FBI’s annual crime data released on Wednesday suggested a slight increase in homicides in the US in 2021, but officials warned that the statistics were incomplete and excluded some major cities due to a new data tracking system.
The agency said that homicides increased by 4.3% in 2021, following a nearly 30% surge in homicides in 2020, which marked the largest single-year increase since the FBI began keeping count in the 1960s. But the murder rate still remained below the historic highs of 1991.
While the estimates suggest homicides did not rise as steeply as they did in 2020, it appears they remained higher than they were before the onset of the pandemic. The data suggested that 58% of the homicide victims were Black, and 37% were white. For victims where ethnicity was reported, 14% were identified as Latino.
The FBI estimates that the number of murders increased from 22,000 in 2020 to 22,900 in 2021. The FBI said that overall violent crime, however, decreased by 1%, with the robbery rate declining by 8.9% and the property crime rate dropping by 4.5%.
Experts, however, caution that the margin of error in the FBI’s new estimates is larger than the suggested increases and decreases, making it difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from the report.
Wednesday’s data does not paint a full picture of homicide trends in the US, however. The FBI recently transitioned to a new data collection system, the national incident-based reporting system (NIBRS), which, according to the agency, offers more granular and better-quality data. But only 52% of US law enforcement agencies had submitted their full 2021 data by the deadline, covering roughly 65% of the population. New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Phoenix were among the cities that did not submit data, leaving major gaps in the database.
This missing data from law enforcement agencies that have yet to make the transition to NIBRS could not have come at a worse time, said Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based data analyst who co-founded AH Datalytics, a company that uses homicide data from 22 major US cities to estimate crime trends. “It’s one thing to estimate in calm waters and another to do it in 2021 after we have had a surge in gun violence,” Asher said.
US homicide and crime data was never released quickly and could be infrequent at times in the past, but before this year it at least captured nearly the entire nation and had a degree of certainty that 2021’s FBI data will not, Asher said. Given the politics associated with crime trends and the impending midterms, voters need access to data that will allow them to make informed choices rather than being solely reliant on police, officials and candidates whose political interests are often tied to the ebb and flow of crime, Asher added.
“It leaves the conversation in an untenable place to understand what is truly happening and create effective public policy in response,” he said. “There’s an air of uncertainty with crime, with one candidate saying crime is up and another says it’s down. And both of them could be right.”
After reviewing the data on Wednesday, Asher added, “We have so little precision and confidence in the data ... The margins of error are so big.”
“I’m worried that not having the authoritative data people rely on will strand our understanding of national crime trends in 2020 for another year,” echoed Ames Grawert, senior counsel in the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a law and policy thinktank. “Since we can’t say things with authority our policy response will be grounded in the past and may make it harder to think about creative and necessary solutions.”
Grawert said while the data needed to be approached with caution, the estimated 4.3% increase in homicides appeared in line with city-level data and anecdotal reports.
People living and working in communities with high levels of violence say 2021 has felt little different from the year before, with many of them describing living through a second year of anxiety and trauma due to increased homicides.
At least 102 people were killed in Oakland in 2020, 24 more than the year before. In 2021, 134 were killed including Chalinda Hatcher’s 15-year-old daughter Shamara Young. The teenager was shot on 6 October while on her way home from a hair appointment. Her uncle, who had been shot non-fatally at a transit station less than six months before the incident, drove her to Highland hospital in Oakland, where she died.
“One minute I’m talking to her on the phone the next minute she’s gone,” Hatcher recalled. “Once they told me she didn’t make it, everything went black. It’s still really sad for me. I miss her so much.
“The gun violence saddens me so much. When it was really high last year I was so scared because every other day you turn around and someone is getting shot,” Hatcher, 38, added about shootings in her city last year. “I realized that people are on edge and out here wildin’ out.”
“[Shootings] went up and it still feels like they’re up,” echoed Paul Carillo, director of the Center for Violence Intervention at Giffords law center for violence prevention. “The numbers are comparable and I can’t make a distinction between the years, all I know is that it’s too high and folks are scrambling to meet the need.”
At the beginning of the pandemic street-level violence prevention workers also became health advocates who delivered masks, hand sanitizer and food in the communities that were simultaneously at greatest risk of dying from Covid and lived in areas where there were decades of gun violence and underinvestment.
Though the need for prevention workers to act as health workers tapered off in 2021, groups remained inundated with shootings and ever-growing caseloads of young people in need of housing and mental health care. The regularity of shootings puts violence prevention staff in constant “triage mode”, Carillo said. “Once you clock in there are already two to three bodies on the ground and you have to respond.”
No one has been arrested for killing Shamara Young and Hatcher said that without the support of the gun violence prevention non-profits Youth Alive! And Adamika Village she doesn’t know how she would have managed to keep going and raise her 13-year-old twin sons. Now she is hoping to leave Oakland and move to a city where she won’t be afraid to let her remaining children out of her sight.
“I have to leave before another one of my kids is gone,” she said. “I don’t wanna keep them in the house like prisoners. They deserve to have a life and it’s threatened here.”