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RI Crime

Rhode Island murders spiked in 2020

New data from the FBI show violent crime also increased across the state

Providence Police investigate a shooting on Carolina Avenue, late Thursday, May 13, 2021, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/Stew Milne)Stew Milne/Associated Press

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Murders rose in Rhode Island in 2020, reflecting a national spike in deadly violence, newly released FBI data shows.

According to the data released Monday, law enforcement in Rhode Island reported 32 murders and nonnegligent manslaughters in 2020. That compares to 25 in 2019, and 16 in 2018. Nationally, murders rose 30 percent from 2019 to 2020.

“There’s no question, with the uptick in violence, you feel like you’re shoveling sand against the tide,” state Attorney General Peter Neronha said in an interview.

Statewide, reports of violent crime — which includes rapes, murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, robbery and aggravated assault — also increased from 2019 to 2020, by 4 percent. Because the number of murders is relatively low in a state of a million people, year-to-year fluctuations can become magnified and seem more significant than they actually are.


Property crime — which includes burglary, theft, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson — was down in 2020, with 23 percent fewer offenses reported by police statewide than in 2019, according to FBI data.

But murders and shootings are up in Rhode Island as they are in many parts of the country. Like the rest of the United States, Rhode Island is still below historic highs of past decades. In 2000, for example, Rhode Island had 45 murders and manslaughters, according to FBI data, based on self-reporting by police departments around the country. And though violent crime has ticked up, the rate was higher as recently as 2017. The data is based on reports of offenses, not convictions.

Many crime experts and law enforcement officials point to the social disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the wide availability of guns as contributors to the national trends that are playing out in Rhode Island. According to Neronha, when going to a shooting scene, it’s not unusual to see placards labeling upwards of 20 shell casings on the ground.


Law enforcement authorities are focusing on stopping shooters before they shoot again, including by going after them for other criminal activity, like the drug trade.

“We need to get more police officers on the street,” Neronha said, “particularly in Providence.”

Others, meanwhile, point to protests over racism in policing last year in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. A small number of those protests turned violent, including a night of looting, arson and rioting in Providence in early June 2020. The “defund the police” movement failed to take hold in Providence’s actual budget — a new training academy is in the works — but in squad cars and foot patrols, individual officers may have pulled back from proactive law enforcement.

“We had a pullback in police activity related to genuine fear on the part of officers who were, probably not unjustifiably, convinced they were not going to get a fair shake if they made a mistake in the field,” said Rafael Mangual, a senior fellow and head of research for the conservative Manhattan Institute’s Policing and Public Safety Initiative.

Mangual also argues that criminal justice reform measures have contributed to the rise in violence, and is skeptical that COVID’s economic and emotional disruptions were a major factor. Crime continued to decrease during the financial crisis a decade ago. But the pandemic may have had an effect in slowdowns in court dockets, which kept people in the community while their cases were being prosecuted, Mangual argues. So have more intentional reforms, he argues.


In 2019, a Rhode Island man released from a life crack-dealing sentence under the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform signed into law by President Trump, was accused of stabbing a man to death at a Providence bar. Joel Francisco has pleaded not guilty in the death of Troy Pine.

“That incident related to the First Step Act is a perfect example of why I’m open to the idea that criminal justice reforms may have contributed to the homicide spike to some degree,” Mangual said.

However, other experts dispute that criminal justice reform or protests drove the increase. After all, the rise in the most violent crimes happened in places across the country, even in areas that did not put criminal justice reform measures into place. Neronha, for one, discounted the theory, calling it “simplistic.”

Eric Bronson, dean of the School of Justice Studies at Roger Williams University, also said there’s not much there. Violence is a spontaneous act. Often it is spurred by anger and the erosion of social norms. It’s not the Hollywood version of a person lurking in the bushes that an adept officer on patrol can stop, Bronson argued.

Instead, Bronson points to a deep sense of anger in the country, part of which political leaders, like Trump, fostered.

“When you have politicians telling you to rough people up, that does have a direct effect on human behavior,” Bronson said.


Bronson also noted that Rhode Island’s murders are lower than they are in other parts of the country, like similarly sized cities in the last place he lived, Texas. But they are higher than in other developed countries.

“We’re doing OK by U.S. standards,” he said, “but we could be doing a whole lot better.”

According to the data, 17 of 2020′s murders and non-negligent manslaughters were reported in Providence. (The city’s own preliminary data at the end of the year differed only slightly, reporting 18 homicides. The data can change if an incident is later re-classified after an investigation.) That is an increase over 13 in 2019 and 10 in 2018, the FBI data shows.

The upward trend is continuing into 2021 in the capital city, where 19 killings have been reported so far this year, the latest a man gunned down Saturday as he ate breakfast at a Broad Street cafe.

It will take years to figure out why the increase is happening, said Col. Hugh T. Clements Jr., chief of the Providence police. But the fact there’s an increase is undeniable, and it’s maiming people in addition to killing them. In 2019, after years of steady decreases, the police department reported a historic low in shooting victims, with 35.

In 2020, though, the number of shooting victims rose to 73. To date, there have been 62. That does not completely erase the city’s progress, though, and Clements, a longtime officer in the city, can recall years when the number topped 150.


“I’ve never seen the availability of guns like this,” Clements said. “We’re seeing a lot of guns out there.”

They’ve already seized 158 guns this year, more than the average of 120 to 140. It’s the sort of policing that Clements believes the community wants — and they want more of it.

“They wanted their police, in a strong way, in some of those more challenged neighborhoods,” Clements said. “They didn’t want the violence in their neighborhoods.”

Police departments have lately leaned on organizations like the Nonviolence Institute, a Providence-based street outreach organization. In Central Falls, all the city’s officers have been trained by the Institute. Those officers get called out to just about every problem, and need the training that helps them defuse situations, said Chief Anthony Roberson.

“You call,” Roberson said, “we’re going to go.”

In many cases, a representative from the Institute will be going, too. They respond to hospitals when someone’s injured, whether it’s by gunfire or a bat or a knife. Over this past weekend they were at the hospital six times.

“Whatever it is, people are armed, and they appear to be very quick in using a weapon,” said Cedric Huntley, the group’s executive director.

Huntley points to a few different things as causes, but he is certain he knows what the solution is, something right in the name of the organization he’s been involved with for more than two decades.

“I’ve seen the ebbs and flows of violence, and how it happens,” Huntley said. “But I’ve never seen it like this. I think people are frustrated and angry, and we have to try to spread the education of nonviolence. We have to spread some of those things people don’t often talk about — love and kindness.”

Globe staff writer Alexa Gagosz contributed to this report.

Brian Amaral can be reached at brian.amaral@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.