Florida crime continued to fall during pandemic
Crime in Florida is the lowest it's been in decades.
Not since the mid-1960s has the crime rate — crimes per person — been this low. The total number of what are called “index” crimes — murders, rapes, robberies and other categories counted by the FBI — in Florida last year was 464,805, the lowest number since 1973, when Florida’s population was a third of what it is now.
“We’re living in some of the safest times that we’ve ever seen — not just in our city but in our country,” says Armando R. Aguilar, Miami assistant chief of police, who oversees the criminal investigations division. “It’s sometimes difficult for people to believe that because I think they just have so much more access to information than we had before.”
Halfway up the state, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd has a similar view. “We’re at a 49- year low crime rate right now,” Judd says of his county stats.
In 2020, Florida’s crime rate stood at 2,152 crimes per 100,000 people, a drop of 15.7% from pre-pandemic 2019.
Amid the trend in 2020 were exceptions: Murder and aggravated assault increased. But even those increases highlight the overall trends. Despite a 15% increase last year to 1,285 murders — a crime that rarely involves strangers — and a 9.5% increase in aggravated assaults, the rate of overall violent crime ticked up just 0.4% last year. Rape, robbery, burglary and larceny all were down.
The level of crime today is a far cry from the 1980s, the boom years for crack cocaine, the cocaine cowboys, drug wars and the wave of criminals exported by the Cuban government to the United States in the Mariel boat lift. The state crime rate back then was four times what it is now. Nationally, the murder rate in 1980 peaked at 10.2 per 100,000 people; Florida’s was 14.5. In 1981, Miami-Dade County was America’s murder capital, tallying 621 murders and leasing refrigerator trucks to hold all the corpses. Murders in Miami in 1980 hit 220. In contrast, in 2018 and 2019, murders in the city fell below 50 — the first two years since at least the 1960s with the numbers that low.
Declines in the crime rate continued in the pandemic. Burglaries statewide fell 17.8% last year. Miami’s Aguilar says more people at home made residential burglary less of an opportunity. However, he says, with businesses closed, commercial burglary increased.
The increase in murders — technically, by definition, murder and non-negligent manslaughter — is harder to explain. A “mystery,” says University of South Florida criminologist Bryanna Fox.
Judd and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri caution against reading too much into any given year’s statistics, especially 2020’s murder stats. “I think what has to be done is eliminate 2020 totally. It’s an asterisk year. It’s such an anomaly,” Gualtieri says.
The increase in murders in Florida last year was concentrated in urban counties. Within urban areas, social scientists have found, murders occur unevenly — mostly in a few, poor, typically black and Hispanic neighborhoods, making homicidal violence commonplace in some parts of an urban area and a non-issue in other parts. In Broward County, for example, the population of the city of Fort Lauderdale represents about a tenth of the county’s overall population, but the city accounted for a third of all murders county-wide.
Perceptions of personal risk, meanwhile, can be distorted, leading people to conclude they’re less safe than they are. Surveys indicate media focus on murders makes people feel less safe, though fewer than 10% of murders involve assailants who are strangers.
Nationally, murder has ticked upward since around 2014 and in Florida since 2013. In 2020, 70 major cities saw their murder rates rise by an overall 35%, the highest increase since 13% in 1968. In Florida, murders in the 10 most populous counties varied from a decrease in Pinellas (down 33%) to an increase of 74% in Polk. (The Polk number is off a 2019 base of just 23. Among Florida counties that typically have murder totals in the triple digits, Broward in 2020 had the highest increase, with the number of murders rising 34% to 149.)
Nationally, some observers see the increased murders and assaults as fallout from a few highly publicized incidents of police misconduct. The arguments are many-fold: Police resources were devoted to civil unrest rather than dealing with crime. Scrutiny of police actions by the public, political leaders and the media led police to pull back from communities and skip enforcing laws. Calls to defund the police and limit their actions not only made police less proactive but also emboldened criminals.
Judd and others in law enforcement say it’s no coincidence that cities where criticism and unrest were loud also saw increased crime. But Florida wasn’t at the forefront of the social unrest, calls to defund the police or demands on limiting police procedures; police leaders doubt much police pullback occurred here. “I think it’s going on to some degree,” says Gualtieri. “To a significant degree? No, I wouldn’t say it’s significant.” He adds, “The cops are concerned. They want to see they have the tools and the ability and the support to do their job. I think you would be naive, to say the least, if you’re a cop in today’s environment and you weren’t at least somewhat concerned about how people are viewing what you’re doing. But at the end of the day, the absolute majority of the cops are doing the right thing.”
The pandemic, however, did impact policing.
With physical distancing, police had less community interaction and sometimes followed up on cases by phone rather than in person, Gualtieri says.
Florida law officers say that while Florida courts curtailed hearings in the pandemic at least for a time, they kept running, while other jurisdictions closed or saw “prosecutorial and judicial activism” that resulted in pre-trial release of people arrested for violent crimes. Some of those people migrated to Florida or were left free to engage in interstate crime tied to violent crime locally.
The early months of the pandemic also saw a high volume of gun purchases. Murders by firearm in Florida grew in 2020 by 20.2%, faster than murders overall. Murder by knife also was up, by 18.4%, more than the category overall. Aggravated assaults involving firearms increased in 2020 by 5,840 to 23,034, a 34% increase, compared to 9.5% for the assault category overall. (Assaults with hands/ kicks/fists etc. were down.)
Aguilar says through the first part of 2021, Miami police seized 545 “crime guns” — guns used in crimes or possessed unlawfully, say, by convicted felons — a 46% increase from the same period in 2020.
First-time buyers were responsible for much of the pandemic gun-buying surge. Fox, the USF criminologist, says research has shown that firsttime buyers often are untutored in gun security. They leave them in places like glove boxes, where thieves steal them. “You can see how even good citizens can be contributing to the gun violence problem,” Fox says.
As an explanation for the increase in murders and assaults, Polk County’s Judd sees a confluence of stresses that led to crimes of passion: Anxiety and anger from COVID-19 and lockdowns, the economy, social unrest and a contentious presidential race. He adds in activity by gangs and violent juveniles. Unlike larcenies where police can analyze patterns and deploy officers to thwart crime, violent crime is the most difficult for police to anticipate, springing often from sudden anger, mental health problems, domestic violence, gangs, drug crime and substance abuse.
Fox says the pandemic interfered with outreach by social services agencies and the private sector to offer help for those with mental health and substance abuse problems. It’s a problem “not talked about enough,” says Fox.
The rise in murder has continued nationally this year. In the first quarter, the homicide rate in 32 American cities increased 24% compared to 2020 and 49% from 2019, says the Council on Criminal Justice. Even so, the number is half what it was 25 years ago.
In Florida, the state is transitioning to a new data reporting system and produced no mid-year report for the first half of 2021. Individual agencies report varying numbers. Judd says crime in Polk as of mid-year was down 5.6%. In Miami, Aguilar says the categories of crime reported to the FBI — murder, rape, robbery, larceny, aggravated assault — are down 8% as of mid-year. Sex crimes have increased as people are getting out more, he says. As of midyear, murders and non-fatal shootings were running even with 2020, he says. Miami has worked with other agencies to get repeat offenders off the streets and also arrested “high-level” violent offenders who have been held in pre-trial detention, “which has likely played a role in our year-to-date violent crime reduction,” Aguilar says.
“We continue to get smarter on crime,” Aguilar says. He says it’s not necessarily a bad thing that people don’t feel as safe as they are. “It might be contributing to people taking more steps than they otherwise would have taken to protect themselves and their property,” he says.
There were 6,154 assaults on law enforcement officers in 2020 in Florida, down from 6,622 in 2019. More than three-quarters of those assaults involved “hands, fist, feet,” but 269 came from assailants using handguns or other firearms.
In 1,413 assaults in 2020, an officer was injured, down from 1,583 injuries in 2019. The number of injuries in 2020 was the lowest since 1991.
Two officers were shot to death in 2020: Trooper Joseph Jon Bullock of the Florida Highway Patrol in February 2020 and wildlife Officer Julian L. Keen Jr. of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in June 2020. This year, as of Sept. 1, five law officers in Florida were killed by gunfire or assault by vehicle, including two FBI agents killed while serving a search warrant in a child pornography investigation and, separately, one officer killed in a training accident.
FLORIDA VS. THE NATION
Florida’s crime statistics have generally followed national trends: Crime soaring in the 1980s and 1990s and then declining. In Florida, after peaking at 8,561 crimes per 100,000 people in 1991, the crime rate has steadily declined.
The reasons for the fall are myriad. Safe to say, humans haven’t gotten nicer.
Although the state’s incarceration rate has trended downward of late, Florida’s rate is among the highest nationally. More people are in jails and prisons, unable to victimize others, than decades ago. The Reason Foundation found that as the state population tripled from 1970 to 2014, its prison population increased by more than 1,000%. The majority of the inmates in Florida state prisons (56%) have been convicted of violent crime.
Law enforcement techniques and technology (“New Tools of the Trade,” page 122) have cut crime. Changes in law have given police and prosecutors more leverage. Tampa Bay law enforcement several years ago saw a rash of car break-ins and motor vehicle theft by juveniles. “These were kids who were the worst of the worst and that had been arrested many times and unfortunately, they were working the system,” says Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. State law limited to 21 the number of days a juvenile could be held while awaiting trial. Few cases are resolved in the courts that fast, so the juveniles were released and repeated their offenses. Additionally, once convicted, if there was no room in juvenile prison, the offenders were sent home to await a slot. Some juveniles had more than 20 offenses.
A Tampa area law enforcement group petitioned the Legislature for help, and in 2017 the Legislature created a classification of “prolific juvenile offenders” for those with five prior felony convictions or arrests. If arrested on a new felony, those juveniles have to be held in detention while their cases pend; if convicted and there’s no room in juvenile prison, they have to be held locally rather than released to their homes.
“What we’ve seen over the last few years since that is the number of auto thefts and car burglaries is way down, way down,” Gualtieri says.
Motor vehicle thefts in Florida stood at 38,013 in 2020, down 2.3% from 2019 and down nearly 12% from 2016.
Florida has its share of hate crimes. The most recent hate crime charge in Florida publicized by the FBI: In March, a 24-year-old man in Dunnellon (near Ocala) was indicted on a federal hate crime charge for allegedly setting fire in July 2020 to a Catholic church.
Nationally, reports of hate crimes rose 6% in 2020.
In Florida last year, the FBI received reports of 109 hate crimes, the lowest level in four years. Race, ethnicity or ancestry was the bias in 65 of the cases, sexual orientation in 22, religion in 20 and gender identity in two. A further breakdown of bias: 44 cases were anti-black, 17 anti-gay, 16 anti-Jewish, nine anti-white and five anti-Hispanic.
The FBI said 93 of the hate crime offenders were white, 45 were black and three were Asian while the racial identity of 34 were unknown. Of the offenders, 17 were Hispanic.
Dunnellon’s Steven Shields, who hasn’t been convicted, was charged in the Ocala church fire incident with intentional damage to religious property, a hate crime charge under the federal Church Arson Prevention Act, and one count of using fire to commit a felony. The first charge carries a 20-year maximum sentence and the second a mandatory minimum of 10 years.
Read more in Florida Trend's October issue.
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