Virginia Murders Surged in 2020, Mostly Black Victims

Violent crime victims by race, 2020

by James A. Bacon

Against the backdrop of COVID-19 shut-ins and anti-police protests last year, violent crime in Virginia declined 1.9%, but homicides increased by 23.4%, according to the Crime in Virginia 2020 reported released by the Virginia State Police today. The spike in killings was mainly, though not exclusively, an African-American phenomenon.

The annual crime report is a compilation of statistics reported by all city, county and town police departments across Virginia. The report provides no analysis, so citizens are on their own to make sense of the data arising from one of the most tumultuous years of the 21st century.

My working hypothesis before the Crime in Virginia 2020 report came out was that two things were going on: (1) the COVID-19 shutdown acted to reduce the overall level of criminality as people restricted activity outside their homes, and (2) the anti-police protests and rollback of tough-on-crime measures — the George Floyd effect — have acted to increase crime, especially violent crime, and especially in African-American communities.

The evidence largely supports my hypothesis.

With people stuck indoors, people were less likely to commit common non-violent crimes. Crime rates per 100,000 population fell 12% for larceny, 9% for simple assault, and 19% for burglary.

Violent crime was a different story.

Violent crime offenders by race, 2020

The rate per 100,000 population for aggravated assaults declined slightly: 1.5% for Whites and 1.6% for Blacks — far less than for non-violent crimes.

By contrast, the number of murders and non-negligent homicides leaped 22.8%, to 528 in 2020 compared to 428 the previous year. While the number of White victims increased by 20, the number of Black victims increased by 97. Put another way, Blacks, who constitute 20% of the population, accounted for more than 80% of the increase in deaths.

The numbers were less pronounced for less violent crimes, but the same racial imbalance was evident. The number of White victims of violent crimes (murder, rape, sodomy, sexual assault with an object, aggravated assault, and robbery) declined 4.1% in 2020 compared to 2019. The number of Black victims increased 6.4%.

The pattern of increased violence for Blacks occurred despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that arrests for drug crimes plummeted last year as the impending decriminalization of marijuana encouraged police and prosecutors to de-emphasize marijuana arrests.

Marijuana seizures dove to 25,000 last year from 36,600 the year before (32%). Marijuana arrests declined even more sharply, to 13,700 from 26,500 (48%). Meanwhile, drug arrests plummeted in 2020 — 23.9% for Whites and 40.1% for Blacks.

So, here’s the big question: Why were Black communities impacted so much more by violent crime in 2020? Did the criminal justice “reforms” designed to combat mass incarceration and reform policing have a boomerang effect?

Update: Ned Oliver at The Virginia Mercury covers the crime report and provides details not contained in my post.