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Rural America Saw a Surge in Homicides in 2020; it was Worse in Rural Kentucky

By Josh Crawford, Molly Rovinski and Austin Dillon

The substantial increase in homicides in American cities has been given considerable attention here at Pegasus Institute as well as in the national media, other think tanks, and on the floor of the United States Senate. The attention is well deserved. Homicides began increasing in 2015 and the 30 percent increase in 2020 is the largest ever recorded. It is estimated that homicides in American cities rose another 5 percent in 2021. In Louisville, homicides rose 92 percent in 2020 and then nearly 9 percent in 2021.

Little-to-no attention, however, has been paid to what has happened in rural America. That was until June of 2022, when the Wall Street Journal released a piece with a startling finding. While homicides rose 30 percent in American cities in 2020, rural America experienced a 25 percent increase.

This presents two interesting questions for Kentucky: First, does the national trend hold for one of the most rural states in the country, and second if it does, what’s driving the increase in violence?

I. Did rural Kentucky experience a similar increase in homicide to rural America in 2020?

For our purposes, we examine counties designated as non-metro by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. Because we use county-level data, every census tract within the county must qualify as rural to qualify for our analysis. This, for example, means that Christian County is omitted because the Hopkinsville census tracts are non-rural. Eighty-six Kentucky counties qualify as rural by this criterion.

The homicide data comes from the Kentucky State Police “Crime in Kentucky” Annual reports. Overall, rural counties saw a 68.5% increase in homicides in 2020. The largest increases occurred in Laurel (2019: 3; 2020: 10) and Trigg (2019: 4; 2020: 10) counties.

II. What caused the increase in Homicides in rural America and what does it mean for Kentucky?

A number of factors appear to have contributed to increased rural violence recently.

i. Domestic Violence

With the onset of COVID-19 and associated policy changes, one of the early concerns was the impact of stay-home orders on domestic violence. Over the course of COVID-19 related lockdowns, domestic violence increased 8.1 percent across the country with the increase even more pronounced in some localities. Studies have found that domestic violence related homicides account for as much as 20 percent of all homicides in the United States. In 2020, domestic violence related homicides increased by 4 percent nationally. A study of homicide trends from 1980-1999 found that while domestic violence related homicides decreased in urban areas over that time, they rose in rural areas.

What is unknowable is to exactly what extent domestic violence related homicides impacted the increase in rural Kentucky. This is because Kentucky does not collect domestic violence related homicide data in a comprehensive way.

Thankfully, that is changing. Senate Judiciary Chairman Whitney Westerfield sponsored SB 271 which requires that data be collected, reported, and analyzed going forward. His bill passed unanimously in both Chambers and was signed by Governor Beshear.

ii. White, non-ideological gangs

One of the growing problems in rural America has been the rise of white, non-ideological street gangs. These groups are distinct from motorcycle gangs or white supremacist gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood, though official data is sometimes muddled by white street gangs being placed in one of the other categories.

According to the 2009 National Youth Gang Survey, there was a 17 percent rise in gang activity in rural counties and a 33 percent rise in smaller towns. By 2012, rural communities accounted for 5.5 percent of all the gangs in the United States. Rural gangs are overwhelmingly white, and these numbers have increased substantially in some southern states in recent years. In 2018 the Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators stated that 53 percent of verified gang members in Mississippi were white.

While these groups rarely receive the same media attention as their urban counterparts, they have begun to see increased attention from law enforcement. In July of 2021, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp announced the largest gang bust in the state’s history. Eighty-seven people were indicted including 77 members of the Ghost Face Gangsters, a white street gang in Augusta–Richmond County, for a range of crimes including attempted murder, drug trafficking, and assaults on police officers. Then the following March, federal prosecutors indicted 21 Mississippi members of the Simon City Royals, one of the largest white street gangs in the country with origins in Chicago, IL. They were charged with offenses ranging from murder to drug trafficking. Three members of the Royals were convicted in separate murder cases in Louisiana in 2021.

What remains unclear is to what extent these groups operate in Kentucky. While there have been indictments of white supremacist gang members in Kentucky, there is currently no central reporting mechanism of gang activity in Kentucky. The most comprehensive of this type of reporting is currently done by the California Attorney General’s Office. Kentucky should adopt some version of this kind of report.

iii. Law Enforcement numbers

One of the oft-cited reasons for the explosion of homicides in American cities is the reduction of law enforcement personnel in large-city departments. In fact, major cities saw a 24 percent increase in police quitting from June 2020 – April 2021.

The relationship between the number of police officers and crime, especially homicide, is well established. A 2004 studyexamined data from 122 cities around the U.S. from 1975 to 1995 and found that increased police numbers brought down violent crime by 12 percent and property crime by 8 percent. A 2018 study in the Review of Economics and Statistics looked at police and crime data from 1960 through 2010. It concluded that every $1 spent on policing generates about $1.63 in social benefits, primarily through reductions in homicides.

What is less clear is if the large-city trends in police personnel are occurring in rural areas. The Kentucky State Police, the second largest police force in the state and a large factor in rural policing in Kentucky, are currently short 270 troopers.

The Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training (DOCJT) collects data on agency personnel and regularly publishes reports. According to their 2021 Comprehensive Survey, when combined, all agencies in Kentucky saw a decline in the average number of sworn personnel from 29 in 2018 to 25 in 2021. But when the data is broken apart it becomes more mixed. Relevant to rural communities, sheriff’s offices saw a decline in the average number of sworn personnel from 18 to 15 during that time, but non-metropolitan police departments saw an increase in sworn personnel over that period: up from 14 in 2018 to 17 in 2021. A deeper dive into the data is needed to determine the full impact of these countervailing trends.

iv. Conclusion

Homicides have increased in urban and rural areas across the country. Louisville experienced an increase substantially higher than the national in 2020, and rural Kentucky experienced the same. What is unknown is if the contributing factors in Kentucky are the same as they have been in other states. Better data collection can improve that and ensure that subsequent policy solutions are appropriately tailored to the specific issues in our rural communities.

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