After declining for over two decades, homicides in the United States increased sharply in 2015 and 2016. This slowed a little bit in the years that followed, until another dramatic increase in homicides occurred in 2020. In fact, the 30% increase from 2019-2020 is the largest ever recorded. By 2021, homicides rose another 5%. While this uptick was not as striking as the one seen in 2020, the numbers were still higher than pre-2019. And while cities tend to have higher violent crime rates overall, newer research suggests that cities are now safer than they have been in decades, while small communities are becoming more dangerous. Namely, the massive homicide increases wasn’t isolated to urban areas. From 2019-2020, homicides in rural areas rose by an average of 25 percent. Per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the states with the highest homicide rates in 2020 were Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, and Arkansas.
The increase in homicides was largely driven by firearm homicides, which increased by 35 percent from 2019-2020, accounting for 75 percent of total homicides. A recent study by the RAND Corporation found that firearm homicide rates have been increasing since 2014, albeit at a slower pace (an average of 6 percent every year from 2014 through 2019). That study also found that Midwest and South-Central states saw the largest relative increases in firearm homicides, which ranged from 75 to 115 percent. Adjusting for demographics, they found that the states that experienced the largest relative increases in firearm homicides were Missouri, Alaska, New Mexico, Kentucky, and Alabama. The states that experienced the lowest relative increases were Connecticut, New York, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. A recent article by the Pegasus Institute agrees that rural America saw a worse surge in homicides in 2020. They focused on Louisville, KY, where homicides rose 92 percent in 2020 and then another 9 percent in 2021. In that article, the authors state that Kentucky’s rural counties saw a 68.5% increase in homicides in 2020.
Looking back, violent crime in rural America appears to have been rising for several years. A study published in May 2022 found that between 2005 and 2017, overall macro trends of homicide rates generally increased with greater rurality, and trends in rural rates differed from those in nonrural areas. In 2018, the violent crime rate in rural areas rose above the national average for the first time in a decade. Some have argued that “Republican” counties surged in crime, but this seems to really be an effect of being in a rural area. Theories for the increase in rural violence include domestic violence as well as increased drug use and associated crimes (e.g., drug trafficking, prostitution and theft). Further, most new crime-fighting strategies are designed for urban areas, where small communities are left out. Relatedly, police departments in smaller communities receive less support and are frequently overwhelemed, understaffed, and lacking important resources such as innovative technology.
Studies from before the pandemic have found that domestic violence related homicides account for as much as 20 percent of all homicides in the U.S. Further, research also suggests that domestic violence homicides have increased in rural areas over the last few decades, yet rates have decreased in urban areas. This study from 2020 notes that several aspects of rural culture may contribute to elevated risks for domestic homicide in rural areas including firearms culture, social and geographic isolation, lack of or accessibility of services, and poverty.
The COVID-19 related lockdowns also had an impact on domestic violence rates. COVID-19 prompted dramatic shifts in “population mobility,” i.e., the lifestyles and routine activities of people that live and work in an area. These changes were due to things like stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and other COVID-related policies. These shifts in population mobility affected the frequency and nature of human interactions, and therefore have the tendency to impact crime. For instance, any people hypothesized that domestic violence incidents would increase due to the nature and duration of stay-at-home orders, which extended periods of contact between family members and domestic partners.
Thus, domestic violence has been a key focus of pandemic-related research. In 2019, domestic violence homicides in the U.S. increased by 8.1%, and in 2020, they increased by 4%. Sure enough, an increase in domestic violence cases was shown in some research, including studies in Dallas, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Similarly, a multi-site study documented increases in domestic violence cases in five jurisdictions, including New Orleans, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Montgomery County (MD), and Phoenix. However, other research on this shows that increases in domestic violence were short-lived and decreased after stay at home orders ended. In rural areas though, it seems like the increases in domestic violence persisted even after stay-at-home orders ended. This could be because there is a pre-existing vulnerability to domestic violence in rural reas, such as fewer resources for victims, and this was likely exacerbated by the pandemic.
Gangs and drugs
One of the growing problems in rural America has been the rise of non-ideological street gangs. According to the 2009 National Youth Gang Survey, there was a 17 percent rise in gang activity in rural counties and a 33 percent rise in smaller towns. By 2012, rural communities accounted for 5.5 percent of all the gangs in the United States. Rural gangs have increased substantially in some southern states in recent years.
This theory is consistent with other research showing that gang violence can affect homicide rates. Violent behavior is commonly associated with gangs and the nature of gang homicides often differs when compared with non-gang homicides. Results from a 2022 study also revealed a significant and positive association between gang-related homicides, drugs, and population size. Most impactful were drugs, with jurisdictions reporting drug-related factors as a prevalent issue suffering a 126% greater risk of gang-related homicides. Relatedly, opioid-related deaths have been worsening in rural areas more so than urban areas, which has been found to be positively associated with homicide rates.
The relationship between gangs and homicide rates can be affected by a plethora of factors (e.g., social, economic, political, cultural, behavioral) that are salient within a specific area or neighborhood. These factors influence things like subcultures of violence and levels of gang membership, which unsurprisingly can increase the gang homicide rates. For example, blue collar work is more common in rural areas, and is more often linked to injuries that are often treated with opioids. Thus, the demand for opioids is higher in rural communities, and opioid-related deaths are typically higher in rural areas as well. This may have led to the expansion of drug gangs and related crimes. More research is needed to draw conclusions about the mechanisms linking opioid demand and homicide, though the relationship likely reflects the violent dynamics of street drug markets.
Dwindling law enforcement numbers
One of the commonly cited reasons for the dramatic increase in homicides is the reduction of law enforcement personnel in large-city departments. In fact, major cities saw a 24 percent increase in police resignations between June 2020 and April 2021. The relationship between the number of police officers and crime, especially homicide, is well established, so this argument is definitely plausible. What is less clear is if the large-city trends in police personnel are occurring in rural areas. The study by the Pegasus Institute notes that the Kentucky State Police is currently short 270 troopers, while all agencies in Kentucky saw a decline in the average number of sworn personnel from 2018 to 2021 (a drop from 29 to 25). When looking at rural and urban communities separately though, the Pegasus Institute found that there was actually an increase in police officers in urban areas from 2018 to 2021 (increasing from 14 to 17 on average), while rural areas saw a decline from 18 to 15 officers, on average. A deeper dive is needed to determine the full impact of these trends, though initial results are striking.
Further, the pandemic dramatically altered the routines of many people across the globe, including police. Police departments across the natioin eliminated in-person roll calls, suspended academy classes and in-service training, cancelled community-oriented policing efforts, and re-allocated officers from specialized units to patrol. Many departments changed shift schedules to limit officers’ exposure to each other, and other policies limited in-person contact between officers and citizens. For example, some agencies required officers to stay in their patrol vehicles whenever possible during citizen encounters, while others pressured officers to reduce their arrests for low-level crimes. All of these changes likely played a role in terms of the pandemic’s impact on crime.
A recent study found that there were massive drops in officer proactivity following the onset of the pandemic and following George Floyd’s death. The pandemic resulted in large significant reductions in officer-initiated calls (-11%) and arrests (-46%), while George Floyd’s death was associated with a 43% reduction in officer-initiated calls. The decrease in police proactivity initially following the pandemic is likely explained policy changes to reduce infection risk (e.g., shift and unit adjustments, reduced informal contacts). The decline after George Floyd’s death is not explained by such a policy change, though. The more plausible explanation is the de-policing theory: officer-initiated calls declined in response to increased scrutiny and outrage after George Floyd’s death that led to an informal pullback in police proactivity.
Yet, several recommended practices for policing have been gaining traction in response to the homicide increase, such as hot spots policing. Unfortunately, these recommendations don’t really apply to rural agencies; they are more geared toward larger urban and suburban departments with more resources and with officers extended across many (often specialized) units. For example, many small agencies are unable to even consider hot spots policing due to the lack of technology and rich data. Police budgets and salaries are notoriously lower when it comes to rural areas, so there are fewer resources (e.g., technology), fewer officers (and even fewer full-time officers), and reduced access to specialized training. Perhaps a good place to start would be increasing the number of officers in rural areas, or possibly expanding the available part-time positions to full-time.
The dramatic homicide increase that occurred from 2019-2020 was noteworthy both in urban and rural areas. However, when looking at urban versus rural areas separately, rural areas have been hit relatively harder by the homicide increase. While more research is needed to better understand why this is the case, the current theories include disproportionate increases in domestic violence, drug use, and gang activity that have occurred in rural versus urban areas. Further, reductions in police activity appear to have affected homicides in both urban and rural areas, but the impact is worse in rural areas with fewer resources.