Homicides in Virginia hit highest levels in two decades

A police car in Richmond, Va. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia’s murder rate climbed to its highest level since the late 1990s last year, according to crime statistics released by the Virginia State Police this week.

Police reported 537 homicides in 2020, up from 455 in 2019, bringing the rate per 100,000 residents to just over six — a number last seen in 1998 as the crime wave that peaked earlier in the decade began to taper off, according to FBI reports.

Localities large and small have felt the uptick.

Henry County, a jurisdiction of 55,000 along the North Carolina border, saw one of the biggest percentage increases. Police reported nine homicides in the county, up from two the year prior. That’s a 350 percent year-over-year increase and the most recorded in at least a decade. In the most high profile case, a former sheriff’s deputy is accused of conspiring with a lover to murder his wife.

Most of the state’s large jurisdictions also recorded more homicides. Of them, Portsmouth saw the steepest increase — a 125 percent rise from 16 homicides in 2019 to 36 in 2020. The victims include a 17-year-old felled by a drive-by shooting and a sailor shot and killed during a fight.

Cities around the country have recorded similar increases in murders. Experts, analysts and police have offered a variety of potential explanations.

Among them: The destabilizing effects of the pandemic, which shut down services like schools and libraries and led to a surge in unemployment; a further fraying of relationships between communities and police following the murder of George Floyd, which could have made people less likely to report crimes or disputes to police; and record gun sales during the pandemic. (Police report guns were used in 80 percent of the murders in Virginia last year.)

Outside of homicides and serious assaults, crime was mostly down last year, with police reporting fewer kidnappings, rapes, other sex offenses and robberies.