During an unprecedented year of pandemic and social unrest, Boston saw a double-digit rise in homicides. But overall, the city’s most serious crimes, including rape, home break-ins, and robberies were down by nearly 1,000 cases, according to preliminary end-of-year data released last week by the Boston Police Department.
Boston police recorded 57 homicides in 2020, reminiscent of the 56 that occurred in 2018. The 37 killings in Boston in 2019 was a 20-year-low, making it an anomaly, said Sergeant Detective John Boyle, spokesman for the department.
“Compared to last year, we could probably go nowhere but up,” Boyle said.
The same trend played out nationwide with homicides increasing sharply across 21 US cities in 2020, according to a report by the Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan national think tank dedicated to improving public policy in criminal justice and public safety.
Baltimore surpassed 300 homicides for the sixth year running; St. Louis, with 260 killings, is approaching an all-time high (267) that was set in 1993; and New York City, with 447 homicides, is closing out its deadliest year in nearly a decade. Killings also surged in Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Milwaukee.
Chicago’s homicide numbers skyrocketed to 739 in mid-December; compared with 475 during the same time frame in 2019. Even Grand Rapids, Mich., saw an uptick from 16 homicides in 2019 to 35 in 2020.
Violence peaked during the summer and fall, coinciding with massive protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but “the connection, if any, between the social unrest and heightened violence remains uncertain,” the think tank’s report said.
Connections between the COVID-19 pandemic and the uptick in violence are more concrete, according to the report. Social distancing has made it difficult for police to prevent and investigate crimes and also hampered anti-violence efforts by street outreach workers, the report said.
“It’s hard to carry out those strategies when agencies and organizations cannot meet with people face to face,” said Tracey Meares, law professor at Yale University and founding director of The Justice Collaboratory, a social science research center at Yale Law School.
Boston also experienced more shootings in 2020, both fatal and nonfatal. Fatal shootings numbered 45 this year, compared with 28 in 2019. Nonfatal shootings rose to 231 in 2020 from 163 the year before.
Police Commissioner William G. Gross said the rise in senseless violence has solidified his officers’ resolve.
“Our police officers work hard every day together with members in our communities to stop violence in its tracks and keep our residents safe, and any loss of life or senseless act of violence is tragic and only drives us to work harder on their behalf,” Gross said.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said it was disheartening to see violence surge across the country in tandem with the hardships brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our communities, and my heart goes out to every person who has lost a loved one during this extremely challenging year,” Walsh said Wednesday. “While these crime stats mirror a troubling pattern in virtually every major city, I want our residents in Boston to know that we will continue doing everything in our power to prevent violence from happening in the first place, and to keep our residents safe.”
Mirroring a national trend, commercial burglaries also rose in Boston. The city’s retailers experienced 544 break-ins this year, compared with 335 in 2019.
Commercial burglaries abruptly spiked nationwide during the first week of June 2020, coinciding with mass protests against police violence in many cities, according to the Council on Criminal Justice report.
Even as the number of shootings rose, the number of guns Boston police removed from the streets also increased in 2020 — to 444 compared with 393 in 2019.
Same thing with Springfield police. Officers there seized 275 firearms.
“I looked at each year through 2015 — and this is by far the highest number of firearms seized in a year,” said Ryan Walsh, spokesman for the Springfield Police Department. The prior high had been 194, Walsh said.
Although the pandemic contributed to crime, it also impeded it. Guidance to stay at home and business closures coincided with declines in home break-ins, rapes, robberies, and theft.
Burglars broke into nearly 250 fewer Boston homes this year, a trend that experts say makes perfect sense. Likewise with street crimes, the think tank report said.
Larceny, or theft, decreased in Boston in 2020 with more than 1,000 fewer cases, an oddity to some criminologists.
Slightly more Bostonians, however, had their cars stolen this year than last. Auto thefts were up to 1,189 from 1,137 in 2019.
All of the above crimes are categorized as part one crimes. Despite an increase in homicides, shootings, and commercial burglaries, Boston saw fewer part one crimes in total this year. Overall, the city saw a dip to 16,491 in 2020 from 17,415 in 2019.
The state’s next two largest cities — Springfield and Worcester — bucked the national trend with slight drops in homicides this year.
Springfield police recorded 18 homicides this year and 20 last year. In Worcester, police reported nine killings in 2020 and 12 in 2019.