Homicides and gun violence surge in Bay Area and nation amid coronavirus pandemic

Homicides and shootings surged in the Bay Area and the rest of the nation last year following a more than decade-long drop in killings. And the body count is likely being spurred by another prolific killer: The coronavirus.

Violence prevention advocates, victims and law enforcement officials alike are reeling from the increased bloodshed that has seen homicide spike by around 30% nationally last year, with some cities seeing even more dire outcomes.

But while there may be some disagreement about what to do, most experts agree the chaos associated with the COVID-19 pandemic is likely the driving factor in the stunning year-over-year increase.

"People have lost their jobs. They haven’t been able to go to work. They been cooped up. They can’t even go to dinner in many instances," said Art Acevedo, President of the Major City Police Chief’s Association.

Acededo is Chief of the Houston Police Department where there were 400 homicides in 2020 – a 40% increase from the year before.

He added that the coronavirus’ effect on the criminal justice system has also likely had a significant impact on crime.

"It’s really come grinding to a halt across the country," he said about the system.

The Bay Area has been hit hard as well. Just a year ago, some cities saw 50-year-lows in homicides. Last year’s spike is one of the largest year-over-year increases in decades.

Amilla Edwards lost her brother in December to gun violence. Ronnie Green, 41, was gunned down outside a mini-mart in East Oakland.

He had eight children, including a one-year-old daughter.

"My nieces and nephews are traumatized," Edwards said in a recent interview with KTVU. "They miss their dad. I miss my brother."

The killing has shattered her family. Just one year earlier, her younger brother was a victim of gun violence in East Oakland. Her father was shot and killed too – when she was 10 years old.

"For it to be less than a year and my older brother gets taken away from us like that – it’s a lot to endure," she said. "I just want my brother back and I know that I’m not going to ever be able to get him back."

Oakland saw 102 homcides last year. In 2019 there were 75.

The Bay Area’s other big cities also saw spikes in killings. San Francsico had 48 compared with 41 the previous year. San Jose had 44 compared with 34 the year before and Vallejo had 28 homicides in 2020 – more than twice as many as in 2019.

For city leaders and violence prevention advocates, the increase in killings has been devastating.

Brenda Grisham works with Oakland’s Ceasefire program. Her some Christopher was killed in front of her family’s home ten years ago. She and other mothers have banded together to help stop violence.

The coronavirus, she said, has made things more challenging. Schools and programs are closed and many young people are falling into the traps of street violence in some of the city’s underserved areas.

"The murderers are getting younger and they’re falling into the trap of what’s out there on the street because you can’t go play football and you can’t go play baseball," she said.

Solving cases has also been more difficult for police – leaving more killers on the street. Some are taking to street justice, and retribution killings inevitably follow, leaving police and violence interruption groups scrambling.

"If you’re not getting people for murder, you know, that’s going to be a problem," Grisham said.

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at evan.sernoffsky@foxtv.com and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky.