Homicide rates in large U.S. cities jumped by more than 30 percent in 2020, on average, and those rates have climbed another 24 percent this year, according to preliminary data from criminologists. Rising crime might seem strange during a pandemic, with large cities locked down, many employees working from home, and people—in theory—meeting less in person. So, what’s behind the spike in violent crime in the United States?

According to Tom Clark, a professor of political science and the co-director of the Politics of Policing Lab at Emory University, we don’t have definitive answers on why crime rises or falls. But the continuing increase seems linked to the economic hardships and frustration caused by the pandemic. As Clark sees it, the escalation in gun sales in recent years is almost certainly a factor, as is the disintegration of trust between police and many communities in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the country’s cycle of police brutality and protest. Rising crime poses a serious political threat to the Democratic Party, which Republicans have ceaselessly assailed as a party that wants to defund the police. In Clark’s view, the slogan Defund the Police has harmed Democrats politically, but recent elections point to an electoral advantage in balancing support for both police and police reform.

Michael Bluhm: Why is this happening?

Tom Clark: The answer is that we don’t know, and I suspect we will never know. A way to understand why is to think about the mirror image—the early ‘90s, where crime began to fall. Thirty years later, with a tremendous amount of research, we still don’t know why crime fell. There’s still debate.

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