Study: Recent spikes in U.S. homicide rates don’t tell whole story

The recent rise of homicides have raised concerns and led to speculation about the causes


By PoliceOne Staff

RICHARDSON, Texas — Homicide rates have spiked across the nation, leading many to attribute the rise to causes such as civil unrest and the opioid epidemic, but a recent study says there’s a simpler explanation.

The rise in homicides follow predictable fluctuation in rates over the past 55 years, according to a study from the University of Texas at Dallas. Homicide rates in most cities remain relatively stable, but the minor fluctuations from year-to-year suggest that long-term factors such as segregation and/or concentrated poverty play a significant role.

In this Sept. 2, 2017, file photo, police lift crime scene tape after two people were shot and transported to Stroger Hospital in Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune via AP, File)
In this Sept. 2, 2017, file photo, police lift crime scene tape after two people were shot and transported to Stroger Hospital in Chicago. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune via AP, File)

The U.S. homicide rate of 5.3 homicides per 100,000 residents climbed almost 12 percent from 2014 to 2015, making it one of the largest increases in decades. From 2015 to 2016, it rose nearly 8 percent.

Trends are usually calculated by comparing the percentages change from one year to the next. But UTD researchers said this method can paint a distorted picture.

The study found that the increased homicide rates in many cities stayed within predicted levels. In other analyses, the recent rise was much lower compared to rates in the early 1980s and 1990s.

The study questions some of the theories about homicide increases in some cities. The high homicide rates in Chicago and Baltimore have been attributed to decreases in police stops and arrests. But in New York City, which has also experienced a decrease in stops and arrests, had not seen an increase in homicides.

Dr. Andrew Wheeler, assistant professor of criminology, said that understanding the expected changes in homicide rates can help prevent the media, policymakers and the public from misinterpreting fluctuations.

“We hope that this information can illustrate that homicide rates are volatile, so it’s important to consider the size of a city and historic levels of homicide when analyzing homicide rates,” Wheeler said. “Researchers focusing only on very recent homicide trends are likely to overestimate the effect of recent events.”

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