Red Cities, Blue Cities, and Crime

Homicides rose across the nation in 2020 and 2021. But did they rise equally in all cities, or was the situation worse in some than in others?

5 minute read

March 12, 2023, 5:00 AM PDT

By Michael Lewyn @mlewyn


View down New York City alleyway at nighttime

Photo Art Wall Decoration / City alley at night

In 2020, the national homicide rate rose 30 percent. Homicides continued to increase in most cities in 2021, but the tide of violence began to ebb last year

Naturally, this tragedy has become a political football, and at least two contending narratives have arisen to explain what went wrong. Republican media tend to favor a “bad blue city” narrative.  According to this story, crime is the result of progressive permissiveness in Democrat-run cities and states.  By contrast, Democratic media tend to claim that crime is a problem everywhere, caused by some mix of COVID-related madness and increased gun purchases.  But has urban crime really risen more in Democratic cities? And if so, are all blue cities the same, or are the most progressive cities especially problematic?

I recently found a chart listing the rate of homicide increase/decrease in our nation’s fifty largest cities, so I have a dataset to play with. It seems that American cities can be divided into multiple groups:

  1. Red cities: cities with Republican mayors. These cities include Jacksonville, Fort Worth, Fresno, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Tulsa, Colorado Springs, Miami and Bakersfield (Mesa, Aurora and Virginia Beach also have Republican mayors, but all three are really suburbs of an older city so I’m not sure it makes sense to include them). * 
  2. Dense cities: Cities with unusually high densities and historically high transit ridership (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, Philadelphia). These cities tend to have become more left-wing in recent decades.
  3. Other progressive cities: cities other than the cities in (2) that seem to have a reputation for being somewhat more progressive than most non-red cities. (I haven’t thought of any more precise way of distinguishing progressive cities from moderate ones, but maybe I am missing something here!) My educated guess is that this group includes include Seattle, Portland, Austin, Minneapolis, Oakland, and Los Angeles.
  4. Black cities: Cities (outside group 2) that are majority Black—Baltimore, Detroit, Memphis. I also include Atlanta in this category, since it is almost half Black and has had Black mayors for half a century. I separated these cities from group 3 because Blacks are not always as socially left-wing as white progressives, so I thought it was possible that these cities might have different results than those in group 3.
  5. “One big suburb” cities: Everything else. These cities tend to be like Republican-run cities in many ways: most of them have annexed hundreds of miles of suburban territory, which makes their politics somewhat more centrist. They tend to be in the South and West but there are a couple of Midwestern exceptions.

In two of the nine Republican-run cities (Jacksonville and Oklahoma City), homicides actually fell between 2019 and 2022. But the others present a mixed picture: homicide rose by 10 percent in Miami, 13 percent in Bakersfield, 31 percent in Omaha, 37 percent in Tulsa, 44 percent in Fort Worth, 71 percent in Fresno, and an eye-popping 181 percent in Colorado Springs. So the median red-city homicide increase is 31 percent, but there’s a pretty wide variation between the best and worst cities. 

I also note that these increases are from a fairly low base, because no red city has an insanely high homicide rate: the worst, my former home of Jacksonville, had 16 murders per 100,000 residents in 2022, the 19th highest among the 50 large cities. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that most of the Republican cities have annexed huge chunks of low-density middle-class suburbia. Only one of the nine red cities (Miami) includes less than 100 square miles.

What about the six dense cities? Homicides fell in only one of the six (Boston). Homicides increased by 26 percent in Washington, 43 percent in Chicago and New York, 47 percent in Philadephia, and 50 percent in San Francisco. To put it another way, the median homicide increase in this group was 43 percent—from a fairly high base in the case of Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, but from a very low base in the case of the other three cities. (San Francisco, New York and Boston all have less than half as many murders per 100,000 as Jacksonville).

What about progressive cities? Crime rose more here than in either the dense cities or the Republican cities.  In all of my six progressive cities, homicides rose by over 50 percent.  Homicides rose by 52 percent in Los Angeles, 56 percent in Oakland, 73 percent in Minneapolis, 74 percent in Seattle, 99 percent in Austin, and 166 percent in Portland. If I’m right in assuming that these cities are more left-wing than my Group 4 and 5 cities, then the correlation between leftish politics and rising crime might be significant.  (But that’s a big if, especially since I’m talking about a pretty small group of cities).

By contrast, the Black cities were a mixed bag. Murders actually decreased in Baltimore and rose by only 12 percent in Detroit. On the other hand, homicide rose by 49 percent in Memphis and 72 percent in Atlanta.  

The last and largest group is a mix of nineteen cities that are currently run by Democrats, but tend to be more suburb-dominated and less known for progressivism than Portland or San Francisco. Two cities in this group had declining murder rates: Wichita and El Paso. The rest include Charlotte (where murders increased by 7 percent), Long Beach (8 percent), Kansas City (8 percent), Dallas (9 percent), San Jose (13 percent), Nashville (29 percent), Denver (32 percent), Albuquerque (42 percent), Houston (56 percent), Indianapolis (57 percent), Sacramento (58 percent), Phoenix (59 percent), Tucson (62 percent), Columbus (63 percent), Louisville (70 percent), Raleigh (114 percent), and Milwaukee (124 percent).  So it appears that the median city in this group (Albuquerque) had a 42 percent increase, about the same as the homicide increase in the dense cities.

In sum, it seems that the increase in homicides was definitely lower in Republican cities, but not by much: the median homicide rate in Republican cities was 31 percent, only somewhat higher than the 40-plus percent increases in the dense and "one big suburb" categories. It appears that left-leaning cities like Portland were less successful than either group, but the resolution of this question would be clearer if there was an intelligent way to sort Democrat-run cities into "moderate" and "progressive" categories. 

*I have also excluded cities with nonpartisan mayors (San Antonio and Las Vegas), as well as Arlington Texas (which, like Mesa, is arguably a suburb of a larger city) and San Diego, which had a Republican mayor for about half of this period but now has a Democratic mayor.


Michael Lewyn

Michael Lewyn is a professor at Touro University, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, in Long Island. His scholarship can be found at http://works.bepress.com/lewyn.

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