Crime in California has fluctuated greatly since the beginning of the pandemic, as it has elsewhere in the country. A troubling rise in some violent crime—with gun-related homicides up 52% and aggravated assaults surging 64% since 2019—may be driving concern among Californians heading into the mid-term election. Nearly two in three Californians now call violence and street crime in their local community a problem. And even as overall property crime dropped by 5.8% in 2021, auto theft rose by 28% compared to 2019; theft of car accessories spiked by 71%.
The jumps in homicides and aggravated assaults contrast sharply with a smaller bump of 6.4% in overall violent crime since 2019. Homicides jumped 31% in 2020 and then ticked up again in 2021 to 41.2% compared to 2019, while aggravated assaults further climbed by 18.0%. But robberies and rapes in 2021 were down by 15.8% and 1.5%, compared to 2019.
Incidents involving guns were behind the rise in violent crime—homicides by firearms were up by 52% and aggravated assaults involving a gun jumped by 64%. And while robberies fell by 15.8%, the number of armed robberies with a firearm remained unchanged.
Data on calls for assistance related to domestic violence point to another sign of the increased role of guns. Although these calls overall were up by 2% in 2021 compared to 2019, calls involving a firearm soared by 80%. Assaults on law enforcement officers also show the prevalence of guns; assaults involving firearms jumped by 33% between 2019 and 2021 (the overall increase in assaults on officers was 3%).
Compared to 2019, however, property crime was down by 5.8%, although the rate increased somewhat in 2021. Burglaries fell by 9.7% and larceny, or unlawful taking of personal property, fell by 12.7%. However, auto theft kept rising: in 2021, the rate was 28.4% higher than in 2019. Cars have become a greater target of some theft, according to larceny data—possibly due to sharply higher values. While shoplifting and car break-ins were down (by 29% and 22%), motor vehicle accessory theft, which includes catalytic converters, surged by 71%.
Changes in crime rates also varied across the state. Among the 15 largest counties, four saw double-digit increases in violent crime (Fresno by 54%, Orange County by 21%, Kern by 20% and Sacramento by 16%), while two large counties saw double-digit drops—falling by 17% in San Francisco and by 12% in San Joaquin.
Meanwhile, property crime was down in 12 of the state’s 15 largest counties compared to 2019, with the biggest drops in Contra Costa and San Joaquin (by 21% and 20%). Fresno and Los Angeles saw increases of 7% and 3%, and Orange County had a slight rise of 0.3%.
Despite homicide and aggravated assault staying at roughly half the rate of early 1990s peaks, and property crime sitting just above the 2020 rate (the lowest observed since 1960), the jump in gun-related violent crime—including a number of tragic mass shootings—is disturbing, and not unique to California.
To help policymakers address the problem, researchers are beginning to generate information on underlying causes. Studies point toward factors such as recent record-high gun sales, disruptions and socioeconomic instability during the pandemic years, a worsening drug crisis, and changes to policing practices. As research also consistently finds a preventive link between crime and police staffing levels, fewer officers is another possible contributor. The number of sworn officers in California has declined by almost 2,000 officers (or 2.5%) over the last two years, as law enforcement faces recruitment and retention challenges. The turmoil of the past two years has also altered how communities view law enforcement and has led to discussions and efforts to pursue alternative approaches to policing. PPIC will continue to monitor crime trends, and analyze these perceptions and strategies for crime prevention going forward.