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California homicides jump 31% in 2020, reaching highest total in 13 years

Yellow tape that says Los Angeles Police Department, Police Line - Do Not Cross
Police tape blocks a crime scene entrance.
(Kevin Rector / Los Angeles Times)

Homicides in California jumped 31% last year, making it the deadliest year since 2007, and Black people accounted for nearly one-third of all victims as the nation’s most populous state struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns over racial injustice, according to reports released Thursday.

The 2,202 homicides last year were 523 more than in 2019, while the rate increased by a similar margin — from 4.2 to 5.5 homicides per 100,000 people.

That’s the most slayings since 2,258 people were killed in 2007, and the rate is the highest since 2008. Black people make up 6.5% of California’s population but accounted for 31% of all victims last year. Latino people accounted for 45% of victims, while 16% were white.

Last year saw such a stark increase in homicides in part because the number and rate of homicides the year before were so low.

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California’s 2019 homicide rate was the lowest since 1966, and rates of violent and property crime in 2019 generally were among the lowest since the 1960s, four experts from UC Berkeley’s California Policy Lab said in a related review focusing on cities with more than 100,000 people.

California cities generally fared better than those in other states that saw bigger per capita increases in homicides and aggravated assaults, experts said.

Yet last year, California had nearly 300 more homicides than the next-deadliest year in the last decade — 2016, which had 1,930 slayings, according to annual reports from the state attorney general’s office.

Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta said it’s unclear why homicides jumped, but he drew a connection to a 65.5% increase in sales of handguns and a 45.9% increase in long-gun sales last year. The 686,435 handguns sold represented a record, while the 480,401 rifles and shotguns were second only to 2016.

Nearly three-quarters of 2020 homicides involved a firearm, up from 69% a year earlier, while domestic-violence-related calls for assistance involving a firearm rose 42%.

“We can safely say that the pandemic had a monumental impact on daily life,” Bonta said while promoting more use of gun violence restraining orders to take firearms from those who may use guns to harm themselves or others.

“With more weapons, more economic stagnation, more desperation, I think those are all potential components and drivers of where we are today.”

He noted that California has some of the nation’s toughest firearm laws and that most people use their weapons properly, but he said the data show there is still much to do.

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More than a third of homicides resulted from an argument, 28% were gang-related, nearly 7% were related to domestic violence and 8.5% were connected to a rape, robbery or burglary, his office reported.

Even with the dramatic year-over-year jump in homicides, overall violent crime rose less than 1%, according to the state reports. That’s because robberies dropped about 14% and rapes 8%, though aggravated assaults were up nearly 9% and arsons 43%.

Meanwhile, property crimes dipped 7.7% during the COVID-19 pandemic, led by a nearly 15% drop in larceny thefts and a 4% drop in burglaries. But motor vehicle thefts jumped nearly 20% and arsons 43%.

The pandemic and its accompanying stay-at-home orders and other restrictions led to erratic changes in crime patterns last year, the UC Berkeley experts said in a report to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code.

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“We were really surprised by the increase in homicide, but also that California is looking at worst in step with the rest of the country and is even maybe looking a little bit better than what we’re seeing nationally,“ Mia Bird, one of the experts, said Thursday. “What that tells us is that it’s not something special about California; it’s a really serious issue for California and for the rest of the country.”

Property crime also fell more in California cities compared with others nationwide that reported their rates to the FBI. However, the vehicle theft rate was higher in California cities for reasons the experts could not explain.

They cited reduced social interactions from the stay-at-home orders as the likely reason for drops in robbery, rape and larceny.

They pinned the timing of the changes in criminal behavior directly to California’s first-in-the-nation stay-at-home order when they took a closer look at the changes in Los Angeles, the state’s largest city.

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“A return to normalcy post-pandemic may also rebalance California’s crime landscape,” the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which favors criminal justice reforms, said in a report based on the same large-city data. “2020 offers a unique window into the effects of isolation, job loss, business failure, and collective grief on community safety.”


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