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California’s Major Cities See Increases in Homicides and Car Thefts

Photo - Police Cars at Night

Four of California’s major cities—Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, and San Francisco—have seen a notable rise in homicides and car thefts, even while violent and property crimes overall remain below pre-pandemic levels.

We examined data on the reported number of crimes in these four large cities through March 2021. These preliminary numbers are subject to revision before they are submitted to the California Department of Justice as part of the state’s official crime statistics. Crime data for other parts of California are not yet available.

Violent crime in these four cities dropped notably in March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic. It then rose, reaching pre-pandemic levels in the fall. Since then, violent crime has declined. In January and February 2021, violent crime was about 12% lower compared to the same time period in 2020. This overall decrease was driven by a drop in robberies and aggravated assaults, which declined by 13% and 11%, respectively. Oakland stands out as the only city examined that saw an increase in aggravated assaults of about 10%.

figure - Overall, There Are Fewer Violent and Property Crimes Now than Before the Pandemic

Importantly, data also show a troubling rise in homicides in 2020. Los Angeles reported a 40% increase in homicides, from 237 in 2019 to 332 in 2020, while Oakland experienced a 36% jump from 75 to 102. San Francisco and San Diego also saw increases, from 41 to 48 (17%) and 50 to 55 (10%), respectively.

Property crime in these four major cities fell by 17%, when comparing the first two months in 2020 to the same time period in 2021. This was driven by a significant (34%) drop in larcenies, which includes car break-ins, shoplifting, and pickpocketing. Residential burglaries also declined by roughly 6%. However, car thefts are notably up by 24%, and commercial burglaries have risen by about 26%. Commercial burglaries jumped significantly in May 2020, coinciding with civil unrest after the killing of George Floyd, and have declined in early 2021, almost reaching pre-pandemic levels.

There were key differences across the four cities. San Francisco is the only city in which residential burglaries increased, but they did so dramatically by about 78%. Meanwhile, Oakland is the only city that saw a drop (about 26%) in commercial burglaries.

figure - Car Thefts and Commercial Burglaries Increased during the Pandemic, but They Have Recently Leveled Off or Declined

It is too early to determine what factors are driving these trends and differences across cities. Crime numbers fluctuate under normal circumstances, and the pandemic has been a highly unusual and challenging time. Restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have profoundly limited in-person interactions. Declines in travel, tourism, and eating out, as well as a sharp increase in remote work, have plausibly reduced some crimes.

Meanwhile, the severe economic impact of the pandemic may have led to a rise in other types of crimes. Efforts to limit the spread of the virus have also presented significant challenges to policing and correctional systems, and increased tensions between communities of color and law enforcement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd may have had an impact as well. Overall, arrests and bookings have dropped notably, and jail and prison populations are now about 28% lower than they were before the pandemic.

Official statewide crime statistics, available later this year, will shed more light on the magnitude and prevalence of these trends. Prior to the pandemic, crime rates in 2019 were historically low, despite occasional upticks in violent crime in the last decade. PPIC will continue to investigate the underlying causes of these crime trends in California and identify effective solutions as we emerge from the pandemic.

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