Right-wing media erroneously use FBI crime report to blame murder spike on police reforms

Following the release of the FBI’s 2020 crime report, right-wing media immediately tried to blame last year’s sharp increase in homicides on “left-wing policies on policing,” even though no direct evidence supports that claim. 

On September 27, the FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report, which showed that the rate of nonviolent property crimes including burglary and larceny dropped by 8%, while the violent crime rate actually increased by 5%. Aggravated assaults increased slightly, but the number of homicides in the country jumped by a staggering 30% from 2019 to 2020, and over three-quarters of those were committed with a firearm. Though the actual murder rate is still lower than what it was in the 1990s, this is the largest single-year increase in homicides since the FBI began keeping national records in the 1960s. 

While the country undoubtedly saw a spike in homicides last year, it is also important to remember that the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report is not a complete data set. Police departments are not required to report their data, and those that do can choose not to report all 12 months of the year. According to report in Time, about 54 police agencies representing populations of over 100,000 people didn’t report all 12 months of data for 2020.  

After the report’s release, however, right-wing media predictably pounced on the findings and tried to blame the murder increase entirely on “left-wing policies on policing” and “massive campaigns against the enforcement of the rule of law.”

While there was a spike in violent crimes in June 2020 around the same time as nationwide protests following the police murder of George Floyd, multiple experts have suggested that last year was an aberration, saying the continuously rising homicide rate can probably be attributed to several factors including the pandemic. (At the time of the protests, right-wing media zeroed in on a few violent events and ignored the largely peaceful social justice movement in an apparent attempt to shift focus away from the need for police reforms.)  

The reality is that homicides increased from February onward, well before any protests or nationwide talk of police reforms spurred by the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May. The numbers then rose to a peak in July, but there was a drop in August and September before they climbed again in October. Furthermore, some of the cities that implemented the biggest cuts to their police department budgets did so after the homicide rate had already peaked in July. 

The Washington Post noted that the “protests caused the violence” narrative appears “far too simple” in part because of a well-established trend: “Violence typically climbs during the summer, and in 2020, that happened to correspond not only with the protests but also with an end to the most intensive lockdowns in many cities — making it hard to pin blame on any one cause without more examination.” 

Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld told The Guardian that the uptick in violence was “widespread” but early data suggests a lot of the additional homicides are concentrated in neighborhoods across the country that have historically struggled with gun violence. As the Guardian stated, “No single narrative can ever explain the dynamics of violence in a single city, much less across an entire country.”  

Additionally, this homicide spike was not limited to urban areas or left-leaning states. According to crime data analyst Jeff Asher, murder increased by 35% in cities with populations over 250,000 that reported full data and by 40% in cities with a population between 100,000 and 250,000. The increase was slightly smaller (25%) in cities with populations under 25,000. Additionally, in March of 2020, the murder rate was up by 20% in every region of the country. This was around the same time that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic and lockdowns began in many states around the country. 

But all this context did not stop right-wing media from immediately jumping on the latest report and pivoting to blame attempts at police reform for rising crime:

  • During the September 28 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson railed against the idea of defunding the police before claiming that the increase in homicides was caused by police reform efforts. Carlson went on to say that “the problem was the police. There weren’t any, and those who remained weren’t allowed to enforce the law.” 
  • During the September 27 edition of Fox News’ The Faulkner Focus, conservative radio host Jason Rantz denied that the pandemic may have played any role in the homicide increase “beyond some politicians taking advantage of it to forward even more of their left-wing policies on policing.” 
  • A September 27 article in The Federalist said the murder increase occurred “amid a left-wing campaign to ‘defund the police’” and claimed a “national crime surge” occurred after “Democrat-led city councils” voted to divert funds away from policing. 
  • In a September 28 editorial, the Washington Examiner mentioned the country’s increase in homicides as evidence “that BLM activists do not really believe that black lives matter, no matter what they say,” claiming that “forcing police into retreat” only “encourages murderers.” The op-ed drew the conclusion that “the new crime data show it is time to cast aside anti-police ideologies.”
  • A September 27 Daily Caller piece attempted to tie the murder increase to police reforms by mentioning the FBI crime report, adding, “A number of large cities reduced police budgets or restricted policing tactics, in some cases corresponding with an increase in crime levels.” 
  • During the September 24 edition of Turning Points USA’s Human Events Daily, host and senior editor Jack Posobiec implored his viewers to “get out of cities” because they “are not the place to be for the next 5-10 years. They are going to be in a downward spiral.” He said that “when you have the attacks on police officers that we’ve seen since 2020 on, when you have these massive campaigns against the enforcement of the rule of law, … that enables criminals,” which Posobiec implied was the cause of the increase in homicides. “When you combine those two: the riots, and … the anti-police [policies], you get 30% rise in murder.”  

A 2020 Washington Post “review of spending on state and local police over the past 60 years” found “no correlation nationally between spending and crime rates.” Similarly, according to a 2019 USA Today, The Memphis Commercial Appeal, and Marshall Project investigation, the number of police officers declined in the country from 1997-2016 and so did the violent crime rate. A former New York City Police Department official told USA Today that when the city decided to reduce the number of officers on the street, the crime rate decreased. He concluded it’s not the number of officers you have, but rather what you have them doing.

While experts have pointed to a number of factors for last year’s spike in murder rate, potentially including some changes to police practices, we are unlikely to know exactly what caused the 2020 homicide increase for years. What we do know now, however, is that it’s far more nuanced than blindly blaming police reforms and rhetoric.