Metro Phoenix emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic a deadlier, more violent place, as homicides climbed to historic highs and the rates of violent crimes ticked upward.
Gun violence, in particular, drove the homicides to levels not seen in Phoenix since 2004. Experts believe economic stress, spikes in gun ownership and the fentanyl crisis all contributed, but warn longer-term trends are not yet clear.
And even though violent crime rates remain historically low compared with the bloodshed in the early 1970s and early 1990s, four separate crime statistics from recent years make for grim reading:
- Arizona’s homicide rate in 2022 rose for a third year in a row, according to available data.
- The Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office says gun-related deaths are at an all-time high.
- Phoenix alone logged 223 murders in 2022, the highest number of homicides in 15 years.
- At least 494 people were murdered in Arizona in 2022, according to Arizona Department of Public Safety data. That’s the second highest number since state and federal agencies began tracking homicides in the 1960s. That could yet get worse, since all the data for that year hasn’t been updated.
The patterns of violent crime in Phoenix and throughout the state are slightly worse but generally mimic what the rest of the country experienced during the COVID-19 era.
In 2020, Arizona’s violent crime rate, which comprises homicides, aggravated assaults, sexual assaults and robberies, was 21% higher than the national rate, making it the 10th highest crime rate in the country according to FBI data. That was the last year for which comparable data was available.
Although elevated in recent years, the violent crime rates in Arizona are historically low when compared with peaks in the early 1990s and early 1970s.
Neither Phoenix, Mesa or Tempe police responded to questions for this article seeking explanation for the crime trends.
However, Phoenix pointed to the plan Interim Phoenix police Chief Michael Sullivan released in June to combat the increasing crime in the state.
Sullivan told The Arizona Republic in August that Phoenix has unique challenges when it comes to policing. It’s close to the border and its population is spread out but there has also been a mix of increased gun use and drug trafficking.
“When you talk about narcotics trafficking and go ahead and throw in the readily accessible firearms into that mix, certainly there’s a recipe for challenges,” Sullivan said in August.
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How the COVID-19 era affected crime
As the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown began it made matters worse, made life more violent and added to a country already teetering on the edge of violent crime.
Experts explained that it is still too soon to pinpoint the reasons that caused the jump during the pandemic’s start, but they do point to a set of possible factors: rising gun sales, economic instability, a deepening fentanyl crisis, pandemic closures and violent national rhetoric.
ASU Criminologist Jesenia Pizarro described how different issues stacked one on top of another in 2020.
Violent crime was tracking up even before the nation was hit with the COVID-19 pandemic, Pizarro said.
“We know that when things get uncertain, and when things are bad, economically, a whole host of things that are bad happen socially,” she said.
A national emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic only increased economic instability, isolated people from community support and created general unrest.
But there’s more to it.
According to ASU criminologist Charles Katz, whose team has analyzed homicide data for the state, there has been a substantial shift in murders since 2015.
“And that is more than simply COVID,” he said.
In Arizona, like in the rest of the country, violent crime rates hit a 60-year low in 2014 before picking back up in 2017 and dipping again slightly in 2018.
Experts point to a flourishing economy in 2014 as a reason behind the national dip.
But by 2020, the violent crime rate continued to rise, showing a 5% increase nationally and a 9% increase in Arizona.
At 484.4 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2020, Arizona’s crime rate was higher than any of the other most populated states in the country and it remained high in 2021.
A year after pandemic restrictions lifted, violent crime seems to have eased, according to DPS data. However, it’s not clear if the numbers will stay the same or if the lower numbers in 2022 might change once more data is available. Still, some agencies have yet to submit their totals for 2022 and 2023.
But from the reliable data that is public, the first six months of 2023 showed lower violent crime numbers compared with the same time for the past four years.
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Homicides break records
The available data on murder during the pandemic years points to the deadliest in Arizona history, with experts suggesting increased gun use and the fentanyl crisis as possible reasons.
So far in 2023, there have been more murders in the past six months than in the same time for 2022, when Arizona logged the second-highest number of murders in state records.
The highest number came in 2021 when the state saw 533 murders.
Arizona’s homicide rate jumped 49% between 2019 and 2021 to about 7.34 per 100,000 people, according to DPS data. 2021 saw the highest murder rate since the mid-1990s.
2022 saw the second-highest rate, with 6.71 homicides per 100,000 people.
One reason behind the increase could be the rising gun possession, several experts explained.
According to the FBI, between 2013 and 2019, the country saw about 13 million gun sales each year. The number almost doubled during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, to about 20 million in sales each year.
During that time, one in five people bought a gun in the U.S.
Gun-related homicides across the country have never been higher, according to the CDC. The department explained that 80% of all homicides involved a gun in 2021 — the highest percentage in the last decade.
Arizona had the seventh-highest ownership of firearms in the country in 2021, according to data pulled from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and from the RAND Corporation’s survey on gun ownership.
“We have a free gun market in Arizona. We know that when we have more guns, we’re going to have more problems, period,” Katz said.
Pizarro, who has published a study on the relationship between guns and death, explained that research shows that states with more restrictive gun laws also have lower crime rates.
“States that have things like permit-to-carry laws, or extreme risk protection orders, or domestic violence restraining orders, those states tend to be safer,” she said.
Aggravated assaults up during pandemic closures
Aggravated assaults have always represented the largest number of violent crimes in Arizona and those numbers jumped during the start of pandemic. Some believe that quarantining made matters worse.
From 2019 to 2021, the rate of assaults jumped about 21%.
A significant part of aggravated assaults come from domestic violence calls.
Between June 2020 and July 2021, about 22,000 calls related to domestic violence were made in Arizona, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
“There’s a lot of reason and a lot of evidence to believe that rates of family violence, and domestic violence, child abuse, intimate partner homicides did increase during the pandemic,” Pizarro said. “Now, individuals are stuck at home with their abusers and social services are not readily available.”
Rates of reported rape or sexual assault continue to increase in Arizona.
Kristen Zgoba, criminal justice professor at Florida International University, explained that during the 2020 lockdown, many were at risk.
“The vast majority of sexual assaults take place with family members, friends and acquaintances, so being in the home is a risk factor,” she said.
Rapes have historically gone underreported in the U.S., but Zgoba explained that when the media spotlights this crime as they did during the #MeToo movement, researchers see a jump in the number of reports because more people feel supported enough to open up.
Where are we headed?
Katz explained that homicides began to see a shift in 2015, but it’s too early to say where the trends are going, because for the past decade the numbers have been fluctuating. They could be flattening out, continuing to bounce around, or starting to climb again.
Katz explained that the shift also could be due to the shift in drug policy and enforcement after the spike in fentanyl use across the country. He said that it parallels what was happening in the country during the 1990s “War on Drugs” campaigns to combat crack cocaine.
Katz also pointed out that authorities charged and jailed fewer people in 2020 and 2021 when the pandemic had taken hold. The incoming population slowed, and the total jail population dropped by about 24% in Maricopa County.
At the time, Sheriff Paul Penzone explained at a news conference that the decrease was due to police making fewer arrests as part of an effort to slow down the spread of COVID-19.
Though then Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey refused to release any at-risk prisoners at the time, local jails released around 300 non-violent inmates by mid-2020 to lower virus risks.
Jared Keenan, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Arizona chapter, believes those numbers were too small to have an impact, and the people who were released were significantly older, non-violent people for whom the virus posed a serious health risk.
Since the pandemic, the violent crime rate has eased even as the murders pile up. Arizona and the country did see an overall decrease in violent crime rates in 2022.
“It’s not so much a decrease but a slowdown,” Pizarro said. She thinks it could be due to numbers coming back to the average. “What goes up, must come down.”
Katz also believes that the slowdown could be a return to statistical normal, but “it’s really hard to determine what normal is unless you’re looking at a fairly long time span.”
“The question is, ‘Where was the floor? Where was the bottom?’ And it may be that we hit the bottom. And now we’re going to be starting to plateau. And the question is, ‘Where will it stop?’” he said.
Another factor could be the increasing employment numbers according to Pizarro.
National employment numbers have increased overall since 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We know from employment numbers that even though the economy is not great, we have seen some improvements,” Pizarro said.