California homicide rise becomes recall rallying cry, but experts question Newsom’s role

California Gov. Gavin Newsom
California Gov. Gavin Newsom meets with Latino leaders at an anti-recall event at Hecho en Mexico restaurant in East Los Angeles on Aug. 14.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

An image of crime tape flashes across the screen. A woman says, “we don’t feel safe anymore,” adding that “crime is surging” in California. The solution, the ad paid for by a Republican group argues, is to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Republicans looking to replace Newsom in next month’s election say the governor is “soft on crime” and to blame for the state’s increase in violent crime, pointing to a rise in homicides as a reason voters should approve the recall.

But researchers who study crime rates say the surge is much more complicated than the attack ads suggest, and that the causes for it likely extend well beyond the policies of one governor or even one state.

“Most cities across the United States saw increases,” said Aaron Chalfin, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In California, homicides rose 31% between 2019 and 2020, with firearms used in three-quarters of those deaths, according to the state’s Homicide Report published by the Department of Justice. That report notes that the COVID-19 pandemic had unknown impacts on crime data that warrant further analysis. Chalfin said the United States experienced a 25% overall increase in homicides last year during the COVID-19 pandemic, the largest one-year jump since reliable tracking began in 1960.


Crime — and particularly homicide — rates are still much lower than the violent years of the 1980s and 1990s.

But polls show concerns about the issue are rising in California, putting new pressure on Newsom and other politicians. A UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll in May found that 42% of those surveyed believed Newsom was doing a poor job of addressing crime in the state — up from 35% in September.

With so many major upheavals in 2020 due to the pandemic — including job losses, social disruptions such as school and business closures, and police departments stretched thin — Chalfin said it’s difficult to determine the causes behind rising murder rates in the United States.

“All of the political differences ... that might contribute to public safety in normal times were swallowed by the dynamics of the pandemic and changes in policing that followed,” Chalfin said. “Political differences feel so small compared to the pandemic and police pulling back, which are consequential to public safety.”

California’s dramatic 31% jump in homicides last year comes with a caveat, said researcher Mia Bird of the California Policy Lab, a nonpartisan research institute based at the University of California. The number to which 2020 is being compared — the murder rate in 2019 — reflected a 50-year low.

Still, 2020 was the deadliest year for homicides since 2007, the state’s report found. Black people accounted for nearly one-third of the state’s murder victims, despite making up 6.5% of its population.

Violent crime overall did not see the same surge, however. Rapes and robberies reported last year decreased, while aggravated assault increased, according to the state’s report. And the number of murders per 100,000 residents remains substantially lower in California than many other states, Bird said.

Bird said that an upcoming report from the California Policy Lab found that violent crime rates increased slightly and property crime rates decreased substantially in California between 2019 and 2020.

“Compared with other states, California experienced smaller increases in violent crime and larger decreases in property crime,” Bird said.

For some critics, that context is unlikely to change their belief that Newsom’s policies contributed to increased crime in California.

“Governor Newsom is soft on crime,” the Recall Gavin Newsom website says.

In July, recall organizers and family members of crime victims rallied at the state Capitol and in other parts of the state to criticize Newsom’s record on criminal justice. Activist Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was kidnapped from her home and killed in 1993, has sharply criticized Newsom since he declared a moratorium on the death penalty in 2019, saying the move robs families like his of justice.


Republican recall candidate Kevin Kiley, an assemblyman from the Sacramento suburb of Rocklin, said it’s taken Newsom a “pending recall to finally realize there is a problem and say that he’s tough on crime.”

Some criticism of Newsom echoes longtime Republican and law enforcement talking points that focus on policies enacted long before he took office. California has been a leader in efforts to reform the criminal justice system, including ending cash bail for some defendants and working to overhaul sentencing rules.

Recall proponents have repeatedly pointed to Newsom’s support of Proposition 47, the 2014 ballot measure that reclassified some felony drug and theft offenses as misdemeanors, as diminishing public safety. There has been much debate over how Proposition 47 and similar policies have actually changed crime trends.

“Prosecutors no longer have the leverage to actually force offenders into drug treatment, so they’re not given the tools they need in order to turn their lives around,” Kiley said during a recent recall debate. “It’s a lose-lose and hurts public safety, and it hurts the offenders themselves, and we make far too many of those choices in California.”

It’s unclear whether recall backers speak for most California voters. Polls have shown wide support for criminal justice reform and greater police accountability. Last November, voters approved reform measures and elected district attorneys in Los Angeles and elsewhere who called for sweeping changes aimed at changing “tough on crime” policies. But some police reform efforts in the Legislature have fizzled in recent years amid opposition from law enforcement groups.

Newsom has declined to participate in debates during the recall election, as has front-runner and conservative talk show host Larry Elder. Despite their absence, the issue of Newsom’s record on public safety has been a key point at debates by candidates looking to unseat the governor on Sept. 14, including at Wednesday’s event in Sacramento.

When asked at a debate earlier this month what he would do about the voter-approved Proposition 47 if elected, Republican recall candidate Kevin Faulconer, former mayor of San Diego, said during a debate “we’re ready to overturn that.”

Earlier this year, the Newsom administration expanded good behavior credits under the voter-approved Proposition 57 initiative, allowing 76,000 prisoners to qualify for an earlier release. The administration’s decision was made with no public input, outraging legislative Republicans. The move falls in line with Newsom’s platform of reducing recidivism through educational opportunities and mental health programs instead of tough-on-crime laws that have led to mass incarcerations in the state.


Last month, however, facing criticism about his record on crime, Newsom signed a bill that reestablishes a state law enforcement unit focused on reducing organized retail theft.

Republican political consultant Rob Stutzman said crime has increasingly become a priority in the recall election as it has risen in polling.

“He has some vulnerability when it comes to crime to some voters,” Stutzman said, adding that Newsom is able to steer clear of tough questions about his criminal justice policies by avoiding debates altogether.

A poll released last month by Berkeley IGS and cosponsored by The Times showed that the race is tight among likely voters, with 47% supporting the recall, compared with 50% who are opposed.

The result of the Sept. 14 election is expected to come down to turnout, and whether Democrats, who far outnumber Republicans in voter registration, cast their ballots. Regardless of whether Newsom holds onto his seat or is replaced, a general election in 2022 will determine who will serve as governor beginning in January 2023.

“He doesn’t have to stand on stage with a candidate running against him right now,” Stutzman said. “But he will have to address this next year if he’s running in the general election.”