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Violence reduction project: Addressing 2020’s unprecedented rise in violent crime

We need “how and now” solutions to reverse trends and save lives


In this July 18, 2020, file photo, police officers respond to a crime scene were two individuals were injured by gunfire on Atlantic Avenue in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

AP Photo/John Minchillo, File

This essay is reprinted with permission from the Violence Reduction Project

The rise in violence in America in 2020 is unprecedented. For instance, 1,800 people have been shot in New York City as of 12/13/20. In 2019, the number was 855. Since June, after protests related to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the increase in violence is even more dramatic. More than 4,000 people have been shot in Chicago this year and 759 killed (as of 12/19/20) compared to 2019’s (still tragic but much better) figures of 2,756 shot and 463 killed.

What’s amazing about New York is how quickly the increase started, and at a very specific moment in mid- to late-June. There were hints of an increase in November 2019 and also in May 2020. But it wasn’t until the week of June 7 that shootings doubled and would stay two to three times higher than the previous year.

The graphic below shows the total number of total shooting victims in New York City, year to date, in 2019 and 2020. Despite COVID, 2020 was on par with 2019 in terms of shooting victims until 37 people were shot in the week of May 10. The divergence between this year and last doesn’t become dramatic until after June 7. Mind you, even a 10% or 20% increase would be dramatic. But now we have a 100% year-to-date increase, with almost all this increase happening just in the past six months (as of December 2020). Since June 7, shootings are up 152%.

2020 crime rates NYPD.JPG

Total shooting victims in New York City, year to date, in 2019 and 2020.


Violence Reduction Project

I launched the Violence Reduction Project – a collection of essays on how to reduce violence – to provide solutions, not rhetoric; policy, not theory. I asked people from my personal and professional and social media circles how they would reduce violence. Now. In 2021. I didn’t want long-term solutions (as needed as those are); I didn’t want visions of “reimagining” society (as needed as that may be).

These essays focus on “how and now” and solutions. On bettering the society we have rather than the society we want. I know we have other problems. These essays focus on the proximate causes of violence and not the “root causes.” Because, quite frankly, I think the former can save lives. And as the bodies pile up, I don’t want to wait for the latter.

Murder rate breaking records

Unfortunately, in terms of more rising violence, New York and Chicago aren’t unique. Jeff Asher collects timely data on murders. (It is a shame our government fails to do so.) The only cities of size that haven’t seen an increase in murders are Baltimore and Newark, New Jersey. In America’s top 65 cities, murders are up in all but 6, and collectively by more than 33%. It’s hard to put such a one-year increase in perspective because it really is unprecedented. It’s never happened before. Double-digit percentage increases in murder happened in 1966, 1967 and 1968. But even then, collectively, the three-year increase was only(!) 38%.

For 25 years after 1970, the murder rate stayed around 8 to 10 victims per 100,000 annually. Then violence declined in the 1990s. In absolute numbers, murders declined from 24,703 in 1991 to 14,249 in 2014. Unfortunately, 2014 will likely represent a nadir in American violence. The 2014 murder rate of 4.5 per 100,000 was the lowest since 1956. Then violence increased in 2015 and 2016 before leveling off and even declining slightly in 2018; 2019 saw almost no change.

2020 is a unique year for many reasons, including COVID, protests, looting and nationwide urban unrest. Causes of increased violence will always be debated (I certainly have my own opinions on the matter), but are discussed here only tangentially. People who smell victims’ blood don’t have the luxury of debating causal theories. The public expects public agencies to respond. The question is, how?

2014 with its record low violence was only six years ago. Think of the progress that had been made over the preceding 20 years. In 1994, 23,330 Americans were murdered (11,800 were Black). In 2014 those figures had dropped to 14,250 and 7,100, respectively. That is literally tens of thousands of people not being shot. It’s a lot of trauma that wasn’t experienced. Unfortunately, 2020 will probably see those numbers back up to around 20,000 murdered (with 11,000 Black victims).

We can’t let this become the new normal

In hindsight, even 2019 wasn’t so bad. What were we doing right? Or at least better. How can we do it again? As quickly as violence goes up, violence can come down. New York City, from 1994 to 1998, decreased murders by 20% (give or take) for each of five consecutive years. (Those reductions occurred while the number of people living in poverty in NYC was increasing.) It can be done. It needs to be done. I know we have other problems, but we can’t simply blame COVID, to take but one example, as an excuse for inaction. We can’t let this become the “new normal.”

It’s hard to overstate the damage of thousands of more murders and tens of thousands of more victims of violent trauma. Of course, there is first and foremost the victim, but the trauma of violence expands brutally, both outward and through the generations. Its tentacles engulf family, friends and loved ones. Even the perpetrators of violence experience trauma and as one looks more broadly one sees the trauma extending to police officers, paramedics and even reporters. This trauma goes outwards through the criminal justice system, to courts, jails and correctional officers. Violence destroys homes, relationships, jobs, neighborhoods and entire cities.

None of these essays is an attempt to “fear monger.” Ultimately this essay collection was written by caring individuals who deeply want to see less violence.

For those at risk, the risk is greater

The 2020 increase in violence isn’t evenly spread between groups or neighborhoods. Most neighborhoods remain perfectly free of gun violence. Most people do not live at risk of being shot. The problem is that for those who are at risk, the risk got much greater. The median age of a murder victim is 30. Half the victims are between the ages of 18 and 33. Approximately 80% of murder victims are men. Just over half are Black. Blacks are approximately seven times as likely as whites to be murdered, and this racial disparity is growing. The fact that the risk of violence is not uniform across society should be all the reason to care even more.

I won’t summarize the essays here, but some themes appear repeatedly, no matter the topic. And the solutions to many of these issues wouldn’t be that hard or expensive to implement if we had the will.

  • We need a national clearinghouse of reliable data collection of crimes, shootings, victims and police use of force.
  • Public safety can’t only be focused on offenders, but needs to take the rest of the neighborhood into account.
  • People with serious mental conditions need better care, treatment and supervision.
  • Police need to focus on gun offenders.
  • Prosecutors need to focus on gun offenders.
  • The problem of violence is largely driven by a few repeat violent offenders.
  • Preventing violence helps both potential victims and potential offenders.
  • Quality-of-life issues matter.
  • The problems of violence disproportionately harm Black Americans and Black communities.
  • Broken Windows policing (distinguished from “zero-tolerance”) is an effective form of order maintenance and can reduce violence.
  • Police can and must do better.
  • Improved police-community relations goes hand-in-hand with better policing and violence reduction.
  • 2020’s rise in violence is substantial.
  • Inaction in the face of rising violence is unconscionable.

Reductions in violence will only come from changes in law, policy and culture. It will come from the hard work of police, prosecutors, paramedics, parents, professors and politicians. And that’s just the Ps. Also needed are mental health care workers, teachers, social workers church leaders, nurses, doctors, surgeons, activists, violence interrupters, neighbors and individuals. In other words, all of us: “society.” We need collaboration and cooperation from those who care and those who realize that positive change is possible.

Click here to read more essays from the Violence Reduction Project

Peter Moskos is a professor of law, police science and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is the director of John Jay College’s NYPD Executive Master’s Program and the author of three books. Moskos is a former Baltimore City police officer and has a PhD in sociology from Harvard.