Amid a pandemic that left law enforcement agencies stretched thin and forced shutdowns that left young men with little to do, California registered a devastating surge in homicides in 2020 that hit especially hard in Black and Latino communities.
The number of homicide victims in California jumped 27% from 2019 to 2020, to about 2,300, marking the largest year-over-year increase in three decades, according to preliminary death certificate data from the California Department of Public Health.
There were 5.8 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2020, the highest rate in California since 2008.
Similar increases were seen nationwide. The number of homicides in a sampling of large cities grew 32% from 2019 to 2020, according to preliminary FBI data. The data encompasses over 200 cities with more than 100,000 people but does not include some big cities, like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, that did not report.
The California death certificate data reveals striking disparities in who fell victim to homicide in 2020.
The number of homicides that took the lives of Black Californians rose 36% from 2019 to 2020, while homicides that took Hispanic lives rose 30%. By comparison, the number of white homicide victims rose 15% and the number of Asian victims rose 10%.
Most victims of homicide in 2020 were young, between 15 and 34 years old; the number of homicide victims in this age group rose from about 900 in 2019 to 1,175 in 2020, a 31% rise.
Firearms were the most common instrument of death, and the number of homicides involving guns rose 35% last year, the state data shows. Extending another long-standing trend: Males were five times as likely to be the victims of homicide as females. The number of male victims rose 30% in 2020, compared with a 14% rise in female victims.
The increase in deadly violence played out across large swaths of the state, urban and rural, and was keenly felt in the San Francisco Bay Area. Among California’s 10 most populous counties, the sharpest increases were reported in Alameda County, where homicides rose 57%, followed by Fresno (44%), Sacramento (36%) and Los Angeles (32%). Only one of the 10 most populous counties — Contra Costa — saw a decline in homicides last year.
Law enforcement officials and criminologists said an increase in conflict among young adults, particularly those in street gangs, was a significant factor in the violence. They noted that schools and sports programs shut down as covid-19 surged, as did large numbers of community and nonprofit programs that provide support, recreational outlets and intervention services for at-risk youth.
“They were bored,” said Reynaldo Reaser, executive director of Reclaiming America's Communities Through Empowerment (R.A.C.E.), which offers sports leagues, gang mediation and youth development in impoverished neighborhoods of South Los Angeles. “And so, having nothing to do — no programs, no sports, no facilities open — the only thing they could focus on is each other.”
Reaser runs a dynamic youth softball league that typically would draw more than 600 players and spectators during Sunday play, he said, many of them young gang members. But those games and other programs were curtailed during the covid pandemic.
Terrell Williams, an 18-year-old who lives in the West Athens area of South Los Angeles, said he spent many nights doing “delinquent stuff” before Reaser’s program changed his life. He said many of his peers felt cooped up and restless during the pandemic lockdowns, which contributed to an increase in violence.
“Covid tended to, I guess, make people not want to stay inside the house, and drove them outside more towards each other,” he said.
Jorja Leap, a UCLA anthropologist and expert in gangs, violence and trauma, echoed that theme, saying the restrictions on youth intervention programs and other healthy activities played “a huge role” in the rise in violence.
“The sports after school — football, basketball, whatever it might be — all that is stopped,” said Leap, a faculty member at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “So, frankly, you got a lot of adolescent and young adult energies out there.”
Leap said young adults were particularly vulnerable to the mental toll of the pandemic. “They finally get programs; they have people interested in them. And then, it's all of a sudden withdrawn,” she said.
Pandemic-fueled anxiety and isolation corresponded with a huge increase in gun sales, which Leap said may also explain some of the increase in homicides. “I am worried about how easy it has been to get a gun during such a crisis time in America,” she said.
“It’s not ‘Pick one factor,’” she added. “All of these factors reinforce each other.”
David Robinson is the sheriff in Kings County, a largely rural county in Southern California that registered 15 homicides in 2020, up from four in 2019. He is also president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, giving him a wide lens on a difficult year.
Robinson agreed that an increase in gang activity and the “mental impact” of telling young adults they had to stay indoors likely contributed to the violence. But separately, he cited the toll the pandemic took on police agencies. Many officers fell ill with covid, forcing their agencies to reduce patrols and other crime prevention efforts.
The mass protests that followed George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer last May also diverted resources, said Robinson. And the anger directed at police made it tougher for some officers to do their jobs.
“When there's this call to defund police, it has an impact on the mentality of the men and women doing the job,” he said, adding that constant criticism can cause officers to “become more reactive than proactive.”
Robinson echoed other law enforcement officers in noting that thousands of inmates were released early from state prisons and county jails during the pandemic to stem covid outbreaks. He said he thinks research eventually will show a correlation with the surge in homicides.
Leap disagreed. “If you get two shoplifting charges, it's a felony,” she said. “That's who they're releasing. They're not releasing people from death row.”
With mass vaccinations taking place across the state and nation, more places are reopening and young adults have more options to engage in something positive. But Leap said it will take a broad effort to bolster jobs and education, along with short-term intervention aimed at those still hurting from the pandemic, to improve the social conditions that contributed to the increase in homicides.
“As much as we've never dealt with a global pandemic in modern times, we've never dealt with the aftermath of a global pandemic,” she said.
Reaser, in Los Angeles, is nonetheless optimistic. After a year of shutdowns, his youth softball league is starting up again. Finally, instead of trying to work out conflicts over the phone or online, Reaser can get young adult rivals to talk, face to face, and bond in a positive way.
“I really think that a lot of programs will open up,” he said. “A lot of violence will slow down.”
This story draws on data from three sources. The data from these sources matches closely, but not precisely. Cause of death and population figures for 1979 through 2018 come from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cause of death figures for 2019 and 2020 come primarily from the California Department of Public Health and are based on death certificates. The exception is 2019 data for eight largely rural counties with few homicides. CDPH did not publish specific 2019 homicide figures for those counties due to data privacy rules. For those counties, 2019 homicide data comes from the California Department of Justice.
Phillip Reese is a data reporting specialist and an assistant professor of journalism at California State University-Sacramento.