San Antonio saw a 22% increase in homicides in 2020, lower than the nationwide increase of 30% but still dramatic, according to figures released by the Federal Bureau of Investigations this week.

Theories about the cause of the spike — and even the data itself — are debated and come with caveats.

Data from the San Antonio Police Department, which sends its data to the FBI, shows 128 reported murders in San Antonio in 2020, compared to 105 in 2019. That’s the highest number since 2016, when 149 people were reported killed. The Bexar County Sheriff Department reported 16 homicides last year, up three from 2019.

So far this year, 94 homicides have been reported in San Antonio. If the current trajectory holds, homicides in San Antonio may match or surpass 2020.

Violent crime overall increased by just under 2% in San Antonio, compared to 5.6% nationally. Aggravated assault and robbery increased, while reported rapes were down almost 30% in 2020. Nationally, rape and robbery rates were down.

It's likely that rape and other sexual assaults are substantially underreported, experts say, especially during the pandemic.

"Even without the added burden of a global pandemic, only 23% of sexual assaults are reported to the police," according to an article in the Harvard Medical School Primary Care Review.

All these statistics have caveats. The Uniform Crime Reports, which are a summary of local reports submitted to the FBI, inherently undercount crime, because multiple offenses are not reported if they occurred during a single incident. Also, each department across the U.S. reports crime differently, making comparison impossible.

"It's frustrating .... that we continue to see the amount of violent crime, especially when it pertains to firearms," said SAPD Police Chief William McManus, who has led the department for about 15 years. "There seems to be some type of moral breakdown and a lack of the fear of consequence."

San Antonio saw a significant decrease in violent crimes in 2018, but the city surpassed its 2017 numbers in 2019 and again in 2020. Conversely, before 2020, homicides had been decreasing year over year since 2017.

Locally and nationally, however, property crimes have continued to drop, federal and San Antonio Police Department data show.

A 'great debate' over causation

One common theory surrounding the 2020 increases in homicide and some violent crime is that the coronavirus pandemic triggered economic and social stressors, leading people to commit crimes.

"There's great debate in the country among criminologists, law professors, and law enforcement about the causes for this phenomenon — everyone has noticed it," said Geary Reamey, a professor at St. Mary’s University School of Law. "Frankly, there's no broad consensus about what is causing the rising crime rates."

The condition of the economy is widely recognized as always being a factor influencing crime rates, he said, and the pandemic lockdowns stressed people financially and psychologically.

"It's very likely that the pandemic, directly and indirectly, has produced some of this increased criminal activity," he said, but to what degree is unclear.

McManus is skeptical.

"There's certainly some sort of anomaly" playing out in the 2020 data, McManus said. It may be a result of the pandemic, "but I'm not one who is going to jump on that bandwagon without empirical evidence."

Another theory for the spike in violent crime is that some police departments are less vigorous in the pursuit of criminals in the wake of calls for police reform, Reamey said.

Several cities have reduced police spending in response to those calls. San Antonio is not among them, but has started to shift and combine resources between police and its health department.

"If the calls for police reform affected the morale of law enforcement officers and agencies in a negative way, and cause them to be more reluctant to get involved in situations or slower to act, then maybe there's there's some causal connection," Reamey said.

McManus acknowledged that officers and agencies are aware of calls for reform, but said he believes it has not impacted public safety overall.

That said, he acknowledged that some police officers say they are less likely to "want to get involved" with low level crimes like panhandling or jaywalking, lest they risk "becoming the star of the next viral video."

San Antonio has begun efforts to reduce some of those low level contacts. As a result of a police services review and community survey, the city is implementing a number of changes to how police — and other departments and experts — handle 911 calls related to mental health, noise complaints, fireworks, and found property. Some of these calls are now handled by Animal Care Services or code enforcement.

Better data to come

Because of the limitations of the UCR data, McManus is looking forward to a new reporting system that should offer a more complete picture of violent crime in the U.S.

The new National Incidents Based Reporting System (NIBRS) captures data on 49 different offenses, including white-collar crimes, in 23 categories. It also allows up to 10 offenses to be recorded out of a single incident, unlike the UCR, which only allows for the capture of the highest offense.

But thus far, only 63% percent of the nation's 15,875 law enforcement agencies are participating in NIBRS. SAPD is one of them, submitting its first report in November last year.

"You get a better picture of what happened during a single event," McManus said.

Because of the increased detail of reporting, NIBRS data will likely show what will appear to be an increase in the crime rate — but that’s because it’s capturing more data.

NIBRS also collects demographic information — race, age, sex, etc. — about the assailant and the victim, the relationship between the two (if they’re related, married, strangers, etc.), and where and when the crime took place.

The NIBRS report submitted by SAPD to the FBI is still under review, so the federal agency's online data explorer tool only reflects what has been verified so far, said Lt. Jesse Salame.

Once SAPD's website is updated, the NIBRS data will be available online there, too, Salame said. It's unclear if SAPD will continue to use UCR in the future.

"Until we're certain that NIBRS is accurately counting and tracking, we're gonna report both [NIBRS and UCR] ... to make sure we're doing it right," he said. "This is new for us."

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...