Detroit remains among nation's most violent big cities, FBI statistics show

Detroit — With assaults, shootings and homicides on the rise across the country, Detroit continued last year to be among the most violent big cities in America, according to FBI statistics released Monday.

Detroit in 2020 had a rate of 2,248.4 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, behind only Memphis, Tennessee, as the highest rate in the country among cities with more than 100,000 residents. St. Louis, Missouri, Little Rock, Arkansas, and South Bend, Indiana rounded out the top five. Lansing, Michigan was ranked No. 9.

Alabama, Maryland and Pennsylvania reported limited data to the FBI in 2020, so cities with more than 100,000 residents that often appear high in crime rankings, such as Birmingham, Baltimore and Philadelphia, are not included in this year's data.

The FBI provides population estimates for cities, but The Detroit News analysis is based on 2020 census data.

In 2020, 14,370 violent crimes — which include assault, robbery, rape and criminal homicide — were reported by Detroit police, according to FBI data. That's a 10.25% increase from 2019 when 13,034 violent crimes were reported.

Homicides nationally jumped 29.4% from 2019 to 2020, the FBI data showed. Violent crimes also were up 5.6% in 2020 over the previous year across the country.

In Detroit, murders rose 19.3% and aggravated assaults increased 21.7%, leading to the city’s big jump in overall violent crime rate even though the number of reported rapes fell by 29% and robberies fell by 21.2%. The city reported 328 murders, including non-negligent manslaughter, 676 rapes, 1,848 robberies and 11,518 aggravated assaults, according to FBI data.

Why Detroit ranks higher than other cities

Those numbers are also how Detroit ranks higher in violent crimes per capita than cities like Chicago and St. Louis, where high numbers of homicides regularly make national news.

Chicago's violent crime rate rose from 943.16 per 100,000 people in 2019 to 967.9 in 2020, an increase of about 2.6%. FBI data shows the number of murders in Chicago increased significantly, from 492 in 2019 to 771 in 2020. Like Detroit, the number of reported rapes and robberies fell. But with a population of nearly 2.75 million in 2020 compared to Detroit's tally of just under 640,000 people, Chicago doesn't even rank in the top 25 cities in terms of violent crime when numbers are adjusted for population.

St. Louis is just less than half the size of Detroit with a population of 301,578, but with 263 murders in 2020 and more than 4,200 aggravated assaults, the city nearly matches Detroit in terms of violent crime for its size. Its crime rate rose about 4.6% this year.

Memphis, which had 633,104 people in 2020, and Portland, Oregon, population 652,503, are the two cities city closest in size to Detroit that reported data. Portland reported only 53 murders, less than a fifth of what Detroit saw last year. The city also had 2,343 aggravated assaults, about a fifth of what was reported in Detroit. In total, its crime rate fell about 3.6%. Memphis, meanwhile, led the nation in violent crime. Thanks largely to a big rise in murders and assaults, its violent crime rate rose 27.3% from 2019 to 2020.

Detroit Police Chief James White pointed out that while nationally homicides jumped about 30% last year over 2019, Detroit's increase was 19%, making it “on the low end of the uptick compared to other major cities, which saw higher increases." 

Detroit police examine something on a cell phone while on duty near Public Safety Headquarters in Detroit on May 16, 2021.

“That’s a testament to the hard work of the men and women of the police department, but we’re not celebrating,” White said. “We’re still averaging getting 500 guns off the street a month, and the kind of impulsive violence we’ve seen over the last two years is the worst I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if it’s COVID, or a sense of hopelessness, but this is happening everywhere.”

For some, including Detroit resident Sandrew King, the situation feels worse in the neighborhoods than the numbers show.

"Whatever you see as far as statistics go, it's worse than that on the street level," he said. "There are a lot of people who don't have hope, and when you get that situation, you're going to get people committing crime because they just don't care. When people don't have hope, your neighbor is no longer your friend; he's your enemy."

Others, like Detroit community activist Maurice Hardwick, known as "Pastor Mo," believe the violent crime wave is slowing down in the city as of late.

"The temperature in the streets is, it feels like things are getting better," he said. "The Greektown craziness has been managed; the drag racing seems to have calmed down, and the police seem to be responding to calls faster. As an activist, I'm not getting a lot of kickback from people who are having major problems with DPD."

Of Michigan's cities larger than 50,000 people other than Detroit, Lansing had 1,508.2 incidents of violent crime per 100,000 people, up 35.8% from the 1,110.7 per 100,000 documented in 2019. Kalamazoo followed, with 1,486.4 violent crimes per 100,000 people, up 19.35% from 1,245.4 per 100,000 last year. Pontiac had 1,364 violent crimes per 100,000 people, an increase of 5.39% from 1,293.79 last year.

Flint, population, 81,252, which came second only to Detroit in the number of total murders, ranked fifth in terms of violent crimes with 1,226 per 100,000 people. That was an 8.8% decrease from the 1,343 per 100,000 documented last year. The 44 murders reported last year were nearly double the 23 reported in 2019.

Numbers dwarfed by early 1990s

While violent crime rose locally and nationally in 2020, the raw numbers paled compared to the most violent period in the nation's history, the early 1990s. In 1991, Detroit recorded 28,262 violent crimes, almost double 2020's 14,370. 

Detroit had 1.2 million residents in 1990; there were 668,000 in 2020, according to the FBI population estimates. The 2020 census put Detroit's population lower at 639,111.

In 1991, there were 615 homicides in Detroit; last year, there were 327, a 19% increase over 2019. Nationwide, there were 24,703 homicides in 1991, compared to 17,815 last year. 

Detroit's worst year for homicides was 1974 when the 714 homicides earned the city the nickname "Murder capital of the world."

Hardwick said he believes a number of factors coalesced last year to cause the violent crime spikes locally and nationwide.

"COVID cost a whole lot," he said. "You had people cooped up with stimulus money coming in and nothing to do. People with no time got involved in a lot of personal beefs on social media, and the retaliation was what caused a lot of those violent crime numbers to go up." 

Oakland University criminal justice professor Daniel Kennedy said COVID was only partly to blame for the rise in violent crime.

"COVID is a vague thing to blame it on because it affected everybody, and I don't know if the same people doing the shooting are the same people who are sitting at home worrying about COVID," Kennedy said. "You can't negate the risk-taking lifestyle a lot of criminals have. If you're holding people up in alleys, you probably aren't worried about a virus."

Kennedy said a larger factor that contributed to more violent crime is "de-policing" — police officers who are reluctant to do their jobs because of the publicity surrounding controversial arrests and uses of force.

"A lot of officers are just not being as proactive as they used to, because they feel any mistakes or ambiguous situations will be judged against them," he said. "If police officers are reluctant to approach suspicious people, that's going to lead to more crime."

Software problems fixed

Detroit police assistant chief David LeValley said problems with the department's old reporting software, which caused aggravated assaults to be underreported, have been fixed since the old program, CRISNET, was replaced in 2016 with a $9.1 million computer system, Superion.

Detroit Police work a crime scene near the 6400 block of Hanson Street in Detroit on July 8, 2020.

"The FBI numbers (released Monday) are nearly identical to what we put out on Jan. 1," LeValley said. "There are a few minor differences, which always happens because we continue to investigate crimes until we submit our stats in March, and sometimes there'll be changes. But we're not having the issues we used to have."

In March of each year, local police departments submit the previous year's crime numbers to Michigan State Police, which usually publishes a report in July, although because of COVID issues, the report was published in August.

State police send their report to the FBI, which adds that data to the other states. Police departments are not compelled to submit their stats.

"Of the 18,619 federal, state, county, city, university and college, and tribal agencies eligible to participate in the UCR Program, 15,897 agencies submitted data in 2020," the FBI website said.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN