RALEIGH — Last year broke homicide records for a number of North Carolina municipalities — including Charlotte and Greensboro — and those elevated levels of violence do not appear to be returning to prior levels, according to data for the first six months of 2021 provided to North State Journal by local police departments. Compounding the issue is a simultaneous rise in law enforcement recruitment and retention problems.
North Carolina’s largest city, Charlotte, had 123 homicides in 2020, the most in their history. But according to Katherine Acosta, a public information officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, the city has had 53 homicides in the first half of 2021, which is even higher than the 48 they had at the same point in 2020.
The murder rate in Charlotte had already been on a dramatic upswing, jumping from 57 in 2018 to 108 in 2019, before the 2020 record number of 123.
At the end of the year, CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings said on social media, “The number of homicides this year  is devastating and unfortunate. Some people are quick to resort to deadly force as a method to solving their problems.”
The chair of UNC Charlotte’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, Michael Turner, told NSJ in a July 5 email, criminologists are often better at counting the homicides than they are at pinpointing the reasons for any changes, because “explanatory factors are many and quite complex.”
“There is little agreement among criminologists on why homicide rates are rising,” Turner said. “Some believe it’s the increase in guns, some believe citizens have a high level of distrust of the police, some believe police have been resistant to engage in volatile situations for fear of bad press/video, and some believe hospitals could be over capacity due to COVID and are not capable of managing trauma to the same degree they did in the past.”
Whatever the reasons, this spike in homicides for 2020 was not just in North Carolina, but across the country. California announced July 1, that their final 2020 numbers were 31% higher than the previous year — a 13-year high. This closely matched the national trends that showed 2020 had a 30% increase over 2019, according to the Council on Criminal Justice. Some cities saw an even higher spike, like Chicago with a 50% increase.
In addition to Charlotte’s homicide spike in 2020, CMPD also had a rise in officer departures, with 131. But as with homicides, the 2021 numbers are on track to surpass this, with 74 officers leaving the force in the first half of the year compared with 67 at the same point the previous year.
This also follows national trends, with officer departures increasing across the country in 2020. Because of staffing shortages, Asheville announced in June that they will stop responding to 10 minor crimes, which include things like theft of under $1,000 without suspect information, fraud and scams, and simple assaults reported after the fact. According to Christina Hallingse, a public information officer with the APD, the department has lost 87 officers since Jan. 1, 2020, 84 of those being resignations, two retirements and one termination.
Asheville had a spike in homicides in 2020, too, with 10 for the small city; the record is 12. In 2021, they already have five homicides, and the summer spike is only just beginning.
Greensboro Police Department public information officer Ron Glenn told NSJ that the summer will largely determine the ultimate homicide number for Greensboro, which had its highest number of homicides in the city’s history in 2020, at 61.
Glenn said the city had seen 22 homicides this time last year, and after the first half of this year, they’ve seen 19 — a slight decrease from the pace of their record year.
Down I-40 in Durham, they are seeing a steep rise in homicides so far in 2021, a year after a 2020 that saw the most shootings in their history. Lt. G.L. Minor of Durham Police Department’s public affairs unit told NSJ in a July 6 email that in the first six months of 2021, there have been 21 homicides, compared with 14 at the same point last year — a 50% increase.
One factor in the killings, which has not always been highlighted, is the overwhelming racial disparity among victims. In Asheville’s 10 homicides from 2020, eight victims were black. In Greensboro, 51 of the 61 victims were black and only seven white, despite white and black citizens each making up a little over 40% of the city’s population. In California’s recent announcement on their 2020 spike, they said 33% of homicide victims in 2020 were black, despite only making up 6.5% of the state’s population.
According to the CDC’s most recent mortality data, this disparity makes homicide the No. 1 cause of death for black males under 44, at about 35% of deaths for those 1–19 and 28% for those 20–44. For comparison, only 5% of deaths in white males 1–19 and 3% of deaths in white males 20–44 are from homicide.
Turner, the UNC Charlotte criminologist, said there was one note of optimism: “Although 2020 seems to have been a record increase in homicide rates, these rates remain lower than what they were in the early to mid 1990’s.”