U.S. murder rates have surged and these cops have theories about why

A police officer walks past an EMS crew member at the scene of a shooting at Kennywood, an amusement park outside Pittsburgh, in September. The U.S. saw an increase in shootings during the pandemic, and murders surged by almost 30 per cent in 2020, according to FBI statistics.  (Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press - image credit)
A police officer walks past an EMS crew member at the scene of a shooting at Kennywood, an amusement park outside Pittsburgh, in September. The U.S. saw an increase in shootings during the pandemic, and murders surged by almost 30 per cent in 2020, according to FBI statistics. (Gene J. Puskar/The Associated Press - image credit)

Gunshots erupt in an amusement park outside Pittsburgh. People run screaming for the exits. Bullets strike three patrons at the park.

It allegedly started with teenagers fighting.

Scenes like this are playing out more frequently across the United States with an increase in shootings during the pandemic. Murders surged almost 30 per cent in 2020 according to FBI statistics, then inched up and down in the two years since.

Other countries also saw increased homicides during the pandemic, including Canada and the U.K., but it was nothing like the American phenomenon.

Crime is now an increasingly ubiquitous political issue in midterm elections that have a back-to-the-90s feel: Republicans are bombarding the airwaves with ads implying their rivals are soft on crime, forcing Democrats to insist they're not and that they don't want to defund the police.

Everyone agrees violent crime rose during the pandemic and crime analysts tend to cite several factors as driving that increase.

How homicides jumped in the first year of the pandemic

Politicians on the right have focused on anti-police attitudes. On the left, it's the proliferation of guns, with record sales putting millions more in circulation.

The pandemic has had innumerable ripple-effects on everything from police staffing levels to their tactics, as well as on the mental state of people acround the world.

Police officers, including those in Pittsburgh, offer an all-of-the-above diagnosis as the cause.

Alex Panetta/CBC News
Alex Panetta/CBC News

'Morale? There is none'

It's been an unsettling few years for policing. Public opinion of law enforcement temporarily dropped in 2020, a year of global outrage over police killings of Black Americans.

Applications to police forces are down, and forces are resorting to increasingly desperate tactics to recruit applicants. In Pittsburgh, staffing is six per cent below budgeted levels and 16 per cent below what the department calls ideal.

A veteran homicide detective on call there on a Sunday afternoon contemplates a question about officer morale.

"Morale? There is none," said Det. Bobby Shaw, a 21-year officer. As for the stress level: "On a scale of 1 to 10? Ten being the worst? Probably 1,648,000.

"It's not a mystery as to why there's such a high alcoholism rate. Drug-abuse rate. Suicide rate. Divorce rate among law-enforcement. That's a fact. You can only take so much."

It's not a mystery as to why there's such a high alcoholism rate. Drug-abuse rate. Suicide rate. Divorce rate among law-enforcement. That's a fact. You can only take so much. - Pittsburgh homicide Det. Bobby Shaw

He describes unusually long overtime stretches, including one 30-hour shift a few weeks ago.

He calls it the day of death — it involved five shootings and a squalid scene involving a pregnant woman, dead of a drug overdose, her surviving child left alone in an apartment.

"There's no relief in sight," Shaw said. "It never stops. … It's wearing, wearing, wearing, hard."

Then there's the public taunting. It got worse after the killing of George Floyd, which Shaw, make no mistake, sees as a murder. He says Floyd's killer, former Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin, deserves to be in prison.

But he also says police are unfairly stereotyped, noting that he and his partner, who is Black, are often heckled during calls.

"I'm a racist. She's an Uncle Tom," he said of the names they are called. "They don't know her. They don't know me."

Alex Panetta/CBC News
Alex Panetta/CBC News

Shaw's partner, Artie Patterson, a 26-year veteran, says there's a cultural taboo against officers admitting they're struggling.

"You're supposed to be strong in this type of job," she said. "But deep down inside you're not OK — you should be talking to someone. … Sometimes it's hurtful."

'It comes from pain'

Pittsburgh's homicide statistics are mild compared to harder hit areas like PhiladelphiaDetroitChicago and St. Louis. During the pandemic, even sparsely populated western states had higher increases in murder rates.

What Pittsburgh is, comparatively speaking, is normal. It followed the national trend, with fatal and non-fatal shootings plunging for years, then suddenly jumping in 2020 and 2021.

Those trends are hammered home during Monday morning conference calls, where police department heads are briefed on weekend incidents.

The homicide rate in the US significantly increased in 2020

"Sometimes it does feel overwhelming," said Sgt. Tiffany Costa, of the conference calls she says have been lengthier lately. "We're looking at increases in overdoses. Increases in gunshot wounds. Increases in suicides."

Costa has an unusual background for a cop. She's politically liberal, heavily tattooed, has a master's degree and was a special-needs teacher who switched careers at age 35.

She wrote the police entrance exam on a whim a decade ago, accompanying her then-husband to the test; she wound up scoring near the top among hundreds of applicants and was later offered a job.

After several years on patrol, then as a negotiator, she's now head of the community-engagement office, which means going to local football games and boxing gyms, attending outdoor chess matches and interacting with kids in high-risk crime environments.

Alex Panetta/CBC News
Alex Panetta/CBC News

Recently, she was in a busy area after school when a passerby provided a tip about a drug deal happening in an alley. Her partner walked slowly past the alley, giving it a furtive glance. With no probable cause to stop anyone, he kept walking.

A group of volunteers was there doing civilian patrols, talking to kids.

Leonard Carter is a retired high-school music teacher and football coach who says you can alter group dynamics just by asking simple questions like, "How's it going?" and "Are you OK?"

He said he remembers the early '90s when he would lose at least one of his football players per year to gang-related violence.

His theory is that distress is what's driving crime. That includes a lack of stability, lack of comfortable homes, lack of feeling valued by society.

"It comes from pain. People are hurting," Carter said.

"If you don't know where your next meal is coming from, if you don't have that security, why would you care about anything or anyone else?"

Jeff Swensen/For CBC News
Jeff Swensen/For CBC News

The pandemic effect

Several of the cops interviewed agreed with civilian analysts who say there's no one simple explanation for why shootings surged two years ago and haven't dropped much since.

"It's a grand cataclysm of all these different things happening in society," Costa said, noting that the pandemic had two major effects: One on public mental health, the other on policing strategy.

On mental health, Costa said she's heard teens describe the distress of being pulled out of school and spending day after day in troubled homes.

People also lost jobs and businesses closed. "People started getting crazy," Patterson said. "Then the guns started coming out."

Police were forced to adjust when officers got sick with COVID-19. Cops stopped riding with partners and proactive policing dropped. That's when officers work on self-assigned duties like monitoring speed limits, speaking to business owners, following up tips about drug-dealing, talking to people in the community.

That change in tactics coincided with gun sales surging at an unprecedented pace, which Costa says means more guns sold second-hand, more guns stolen, and more guns used illegally.

One of her favourite proactive-policing tricks is to peek into windows of parked cars to look for illegally stored guns: "That's a way to get lots of guns off the street."

Michael M. Santiago/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/The Associated Press
Michael M. Santiago/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/The Associated Press

Police reaction to protests

Then there's the factor everyone talked about in 2020: public rage following George Floyd's murder.

Assaults on officers increased nationwide that year. This fall, three Pittsburgh police cars were destroyed in a fire.

Discretionary activities and proactive policing got dialled back further in the aftermath of Floyd's killing, Shaw said.

"Because the minute there is resistance and there's use of force, you're gonna be on CNN. Who the hell wants to go through that now?"

Where are there the most homicides per capita in the US?

Costa has also heard that. "I've heard many officers say, 'I don't want to be next on the nightly news.' … Officers started to step back."

As a rare liberal on the police force who's sympathetic to Black Lives Matter, Costa says she avoids talking politics with her colleagues.

Despite their differing politics, Costa and Shaw agree on the fundamental problem: the statistically higher odds that Black citizens will be shot by police.

Both describe this disparity as an outgrowth of deep-rooted problems stemming from far broader issues than policing.

"We are essentially living in a caste system," Costa said. "The policing situation is just a symptom of everything else that's happened to Black folks in this country."

Michael M. Santiago/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/The Associated Press
Michael M. Santiago/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/The Associated Press

Zinna Scott, a prominent Pittsburgh community volunteer, agrees things came to a head during the pandemic when people lost jobs, substance abuse worsened and police forces were understaffed.

"All of that rolled into one big, giant ball of fire," said the retired grocery-chain supervisor who heads a citizens' public safety council in her area, the predominantly Black neighbourhood of Homewood.

After Floyd's death, police in Pittsburgh used smoke to disperse protesters, and Scott blamed that incident for temporarily making tensions worse.

But her impression is that relations with police are better than they were.

She recalls being pulled over a few times in the early 2000s, when she said officers suspected she must have been a drug dealer because she drove a sporty purple Pontiac.

Young men had it even worse, she said. "People were complaining like crazy about being snatched and grabbed and shoved and pushed [by officers]. You know, not respected at all."

She credits some subsequent improvements to an officer who oversaw her area and has since left Pittsburgh to become chief of a force in Maryland.

The effect of political choices

Political decisions also had a ripple-effect. For instance, in Pittsburgh, state and county officials closed the only youth-detention facility.

The mayor is now pleading for the centre to be reopened after a jump in violence.

This shutdown made the city less safe, Shaw said.

He tells a story about one teen he fears is a ticking time bomb. He's constantly beating up other kids, there's a warrant for his arrest, and his mother begged police for help.

Jeff Swensen/For CBC News
Jeff Swensen/For CBC News

But there's nothing anyone can do, Shaw says. There's no juvenile detention and the county youth services won't take him because he's violent.

"Our last option is we 302 him. An involuntary mental-health commitment. You hold him for seven hours and he's out. You put a band-aid on a wound."

Costa recalled that when she was a teacher, the threat of county detention might keep a student from hurting other kids, but now that threat is gone — and young offenders know it.

"The kids know they can get away with a whole lot," she said.

Criminologist records drop in murder rate

Jeff Asher, a data analyst who specializes in homicide, told CBC News the murder stats defy simplistic explanations.

It can't just be politics, he said, when murder went up in red states and blue states, in pro-Trump and pro-Biden counties, in urban and rural areas.

The three factors that fed into the homicide rise, it strikes me, are the pandemic itself, the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and the big uptick in drug activity. - Richard Rosenfeld, criminologist

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist who specializes in the study of murder as a professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, agrees that there's no one definitive reason for rising murder rates.

"But the three factors that fed into the homicide rise, it strikes me, are the pandemic itself, the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and the big uptick in drug activity."

Alex Panetta/CBC News
Alex Panetta/CBC News

There's some good news: Rosenfeld found a two per cent drop in murder this year in his study of 23 U.S. cities in the first half of 2022.

As it turned out, nobody died in the Pittsburgh amusement-park shooting. A 15-year-old boy was charged, and the three survivors are recovering.

They were lucky.

Unlike earlier this month when two women, innocent bystanders, were hit by crossfire in Pittsburgh. They were killed while waiting for a bus.