Safety of Small Town America Suffered in 2020

By Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.
October 8, 2021 Updated: October 8, 2021

The historic violence wave of 2020 that sent the national murder rate up some 30 percent was in no way limited to large cities. Smaller cities and towns saw a hike nearly as large, according to data provided by local police departments to the FBI.

While rural or suburban living still offers much greater safety than an urban one, that comfort considerably diminished last year, the recently released data indicates.

In 2019, towns with populations under 50,000 had a murder rate of less than 2.9 per 100,000. That same rate was more than 3.7 in 2020—almost as high as that of 2019 New York City, which was 3.8.

One now has to look at towns of less than 2,000 people to get a homicide rate, just barely, under 3 per 100,000. The year prior, those same small towns recorded a rate of less than 1.6.

In this analysis, The Epoch Times only looked at towns with FBI data for both 2019 and 2020. There were nearly 9,000 municipalities submitting some data in either year, but less than 7,000 in both years. Almost no towns in Pennsylvania, New Mexico, or Maryland were thus included. No town in Hawaii provided data for 2020. The Epoch Times added data from local sources for some large jurisdictions, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, Fresno, Indianapolis, Louisville, Honolulu, and Pittsburgh.

While the bulk of inner city murders are shootings between rivaling gang bangers in the middle of the night, small town murders seem to play out differently.

Epoch Times Photo
The sun sets over a field near Warrenton, Virginia, on Jan. 16, 2020. Two people were murdered in Warrenton in 2020, the most since 1983, according to FBI data. (Eva Hambach/AFP via Getty Images)

Morehouse, Missouri, is a tiny town of less than a 1,000 a bit over 100 miles south of St. Louis. Visitors can spot four churches, a Dollar General, and a good share of trailer homes. In 2019, it boasted a violent crime rate of zero. It hadn’t seen a murder since at least 1965, based on available FBI data.

In 2020, two people were murdered in Morehouse.

A 34-year-old woman and her 27-year-old boyfriend stand trial for killing the woman’s 73-year-old grandmother, local media reported, citing authorities and case documents. The couple and their three children lived in the victim’s home on the northeastern edge of the town. One night in August, they tried to rob the septuagenarian and, possibly in the resulting altercation, stabbed her to death. They then wrapped her body in a carpet and ditched her in a soybean field some 20 miles away. Police quickly located the alleged perpetrators.

Just a few months earlier and on the other side of the town, a 32-year-old local man allegedly beat an 18-year-old girl to death with a blunt object. He then allegedly stuffed her body into a suitcase and left it in a wildlife refuge some 40 miles away in neighboring Illinois, according to local media and an Illinois nonprofit.

It’s normal for small towns to rarely have crimes as serious as murder. However, there was an upsurge of such rarities in 2020.

Among towns with less than 2,000 residents, Hemingway, South Carolina, last year had its first murder since 1973, based on FBI data going back to 1965 aggregated by the Murder Accountability Project.

Bunn, North Carolina, saw its first murder since 1986. Maury City, Tennessee, had its first since at least 1965, which was also true for Mackinaw City, Michigan; Morehouse, Missouri; Hector, Minnesota; Country Club Hills, Missouri; Wallis, Texas; Sperry, Oklahoma; Gretna, Florida; Greenville, Maine; Piedmont, Missouri; and Snow Hill, North Carolina.

Some small towns that have had violence problems saw increases last year.

East Spencer, North Carolina, never had more than two murders a year since at least 1965, until 2020 when it had six.

Coeburn, Virginia, never had more than one murder a year, with the last one in 2007. In 2020, it recorded four.

Velda City, Missouri, has reported four murders since at least 1965, two of which were in 2020.

Despite these statistics, small towns are on average still far safer than large cities with regard to crime.

Based on the 2020 data, cities with more than 100,000 residents had a murder rate of nearly 12 per 100,000—up more than 36 percent from the year before.

The worst offender was St. Louis with a homicide rate of more than 88 per 100,000 residents. It appears that this is a new historic high for the city, which has for years already carried the infamous title of America’s murder capital.

Among major cities, Columbus, Ohio, recorded the most egregious murder hike of nearly 115 percent between 2019 and 2020. Milwaukee follows closely with nearly a 97 percent increase. The murder count in Seattle, Washington, increased by almost 86 percent, though that still pushed the city’s homicide rate only to a relatively modest 6.7 per 100,000. In Portland, Oregon, murders went up nearly 83 percent, boosting the rate to almost 8 per 100,000.

Petr Svab
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.