Recently released FBI crime data from two-thirds of the country’s law enforcement agencies indicate that California’s violent crime rate is increasingly diverging from the national trend: as of 2022, it is 31% higher than the US rate. This divergence is driven largely by aggravated assaults, which have been declining nationwide while rising in California.
It should be noted that the FBI adopted a new crime reporting system in 2021, and many law enforcement agencies around the country are not yet participating; about 60% reported data in 2021 and 69% in 2022. California’s crime statistics appear to line up well with the FBI numbers, but this may not be the case for other states in which relatively few agencies report. Just under half of California’s law enforcement agencies (49%) reported crime numbers for 2022, and percentages in many other populous states were much lower: 8% in Florida, 9% in Pennsylvania, and 24% in New York.
When we look at trends since 2010, we see that California’s violent crime rate trend roughly mirrored the nationwide trend in the decade before the pandemic. The California-US violent crime rate gap widened from 10% to 15% in 2015, partly due to an adjustment in Los Angeles Police Department reporting after the agency was found to have significantly underreported aggravated assaults from 2008 to 2014. During the pandemic, however, the gap grew from 15% in 2019 to 31% by 2022. Less striking but noteworthy, while property crime increased nationally and in California in 2022, nationwide it is down by 8% compared to the pre-pandemic level, while in California it is now 1% higher.
This gap is primarily driven by aggravated assaults. Before the pandemic, California’s aggravated assault rate was 6% higher than the national rate. Both California and the nation saw an increase in 2020. However, the national aggravated assault rate declined in 2021 and 2022, while California’s rate was 25% higher in 2022 than in 2019. As a result, the gap between California and the nation widened to 24%.
The divergence between California and the US is not as significant in other violent crime categories. Robbery rates were lower in 2022 than in 2019 by 6% in California and 19% nationwide; California saw slight increases in 2021 and 2022, while national rates continued their longer-term decline. In contrast, California’s homicide and rape rates follow national patterns in recent years and have remained below nationwide rates over the last decade.
When we look at county-level data from the California Department of Justice (DOJ), we see that the recent increases in aggravated assaults can be seen in both urban and rural counties across the state. Of California’s 58 counties, 45 experienced increases between 2019 and 2022. Rates increased at least 10% in 40 counties, while 34 counties saw increases of 20% or more and rates went up at least 30% in 28 counties.
Of the state’s 15 largest counties, the biggest percentage increases in aggravated assaults were in Orange County and San Mateo (74% and 65% respectively); in spite of these jumps, these counties have two of the lowest violent crime rates in the state. Rates jumped 61% in Fresno, 46% in Alameda, and 43% in Sacramento. San Joaquin was the only large county with a decrease (10%). The smallest rural counties (those with a population below 100,000 residents) saw an increase of 31%.
There are some important caveats. While California’s 13% violent crime rate increase stands out in relation to nationwide numbers, there were double-digit increases in eight other states, including Colorado, Washington, Minnesota, New York, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Moreover, as noted above, the recent change in the FBI’s crime reporting systems and subsequent incomplete law enforcement agency participation makes comparisons across states less reliable. We also do not know whether the switch from a so-called hierarchical reporting system—where only the most serious offense for a given crime incident is reported—to a new system that captures multiple offenses for a given incident is generating comparable crime statistics.
Nonetheless, California DOJ data shows a gradual increase in violent crime, driven by aggravated assaults, starting well before the FBI changes took place. Aggravated assault rates rose in six of the eight years since 2014, for a total increase of about 39% (32% if LAPD is excluded).
It is not clear what factors are contributing to troubling increases in aggravated assaults. Decreases in police staffing (3,600 fewer sworn officers statewide in the last two years) and a decline in jail and prison populations (down by 42,000, or 21%, since 2019) may have contributed. Increased behavioral health challenges, like substance use and mental health, may be playing a role. More broadly, rising social and economic challenges, such as the state’s increase in homelessness—up 6% between 2020 and 2022, compared to 0.4% in the rest of the country—may also be factors. Research that can give policymakers and stakeholders a better understanding of underlying factors is needed to address this worrisome trend.