Since early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold and cases and deaths climbed — forcing the shutdown of businesses and campuses, quarantines and self-isolation — the numbers for homicide and aggravated assault in the Twin Cities began to climb.
In Minneapolis, homicides were up by 75 percent in 2020 over the previous year, and the number of murders in 2021 is on pace to surpass last year’s total. Meanwhile, robbery is up 30 percent in 2021 compared to 2020 while aggravated assault is up 24 percent.
It was much the same in St. Paul, where last year’s 34 homicides matched the most in city history, while aggravated assault rose by 31 percent.
But amid the spike in crime during the pandemic, one category of violent crime saw a significant decline in reporting, in both Minneapolis and St. Paul: rape.
After recording 426 rapes in 2018 and 495 in 2019, Minneapolis reported 373 rapes in 2020, a 25 percent decline, and 363 so far in 2021. St. Paul saw a similar trend. There, the number of reported rapes grew every year from 2016 to 2019, but dropped by 19 percent in 2020 (though the number reported through October of this year is higher than it was last year).
One possible reason for the decline is the shutdown of many businesses and institutions during the pandemic, said St. Paul Police Sgt. Natalie Davis, especially bars, schools and college campuses.
As businesses and schools began to open back up this year, said Davis, police once again started seeing a higher number of reports, though she also cautioned there’s not enough data from 2021 to draw any definitive conclusions.
“When you look at sex crimes, there is obviously a lot of school-related reports, and then bar reports of people being under the influence,” said Davis. “When things were on lockdown, we had a decrease of reporting. I think that’s because kids were doing online school at home, and you don’t have bars open.”
The theory that pandemic shutdowns might be behind lower rape statistics in the Twin Cities “makes perfect sense to me,” said Meghan Sacks, an associate professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University who researches sexual assault statistics.
To be sure, those numbers don’t capture anything close to a complete picture of sexual assault in the area. “Sexual assault numbers are going to vary by place and vary by culture but, in general, the rule is that at least half of all rapes are not reported,” said Sacks.
Even so, fluctuations in report numbers still carry indicators worth studying, said Ethan C. Levine, a sociologist and activist who has written about sexual violence statistics. “Trends, in terms of those numbers going up or down, might still be reflective of overall trends, even if they are underestimated. Even if the raw number is incorrect, if the degree to which rape survivors contact law enforcement stays the same, then a rise or fall would still indicate a rise or fall.”
A little less than a third of rapes reported nationally are “stranger assaults,” said Sacks. “Which happens when people are outdoors, outside and out of their element, which was not happening as much during the pandemic,” she said.
Another third of rape reports, perhaps more, Sacks said, are “acquaintance rape,” which is when a victim is assaulted by someone they socialize with, someone they are dating or someone who is in their general vicinity — situations that were often inhibited or severely curtailed during the pandemic.
Levine noted that there may be another era-specific factor at work: the reckoning around policing prompted by the death of George Floyd. Since Floyd’s death in May 2020, many people all over the country have reconsidered how they engage with police, or thought twice about contacting law enforcement at all.
“I am a multiple sexual assault survivor and I’ve never contacted law enforcement,” said Levine. “I’ve contacted advocates but never law enforcement. This is my whole life, working on this stuff, and I’ve never done that. Two of the people who have harmed me in that way are also transgender people, like me, and I am not going to subject another trans person to those institutions.”
And with the world reopening, Sacks said, the numbers will undoubtedly rise again. “Now, hopefully, it won’t be a mass increase, but it’s going to happen,” she said. “As the world reopens, predators will have more opportunities. That’s just the reality.”