BISMARCK — North Dakota set a grim record in 2020 with homicides taking the lives of 32 people, according to figures released Wednesday, June 9, by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.
The number of homicides last year is "by far the highest number since these reports were first compiled in 1978, and probably ever in the state's history. That number eclipsed last year's homicides of 26, which was a record then,” Stenehjem said in a statement.
From 2019 to 2020, the number of homicides jumped 23%. Stenehjem said he doesn't believe the increase is related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I don't think it's because everyone was all cooped up because of the pandemic and so they couldn't do anything but turn on one another," Stenehjem said. "That doesn't seem to be what we're seeing with as we drill down into individual cases, but it's a cause for concern."
Western North Dakota had relatively few homicides in 2020, Stenehjem said, with two in Williston, one in Dickinson and three in the Bismarck-Mandan area, according to the state homicide report, which defines a homicide as the “willful killing of one human being by another."
Four homicides occurred in Grand Forks, and Fargo and Minot each reported seven homicides. Although Minot has 10% of the state's population, it accounted for about 20% of the state's homicides in 2020, Stenehjem said.
It’s difficult to determine why the state’s homicide toll is rising, but Stenehjem said he thinks drug activity is playing a role in the increase. Many of the homicides are the result of “drug deals gone bad,” he said.
North Dakota saw about 4.2 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2020 — the highest the rate has been since at least 2001. Nationwide, the U.S. had about five homicides per 100,000 people in 2019, according to the most recent FBI data.
About 69% of North Dakota’s 32 homicide victims in 2020 were male, according to state figures. Four of the 32 victims were juveniles.
Twelve of the state's 32 homicides resulted from domestic violence, according to the state homicide report.
Homicide cases can be cleared by an arrest or "cleared exceptionally," meaning a physical arrest can't be made, like if the assailant died by suicide.
North Dakota cleared 28 of its 32 homicides in 2020, amounting to an 88% clearance rate for the year, the report said.
Twenty-nine people were arrested for homicide in 2020. Of those arrested, 25 were male, according to the state crime report.
Although North Dakota’s homicide rate has been increasing since 2017, the actual increases have been relatively small in perspective, said Amy Stichman, an associate professor in North Dakota State University’s Department of Criminology.
Many states have seen a significant jump in the number of homicides amid the pandemic, Stichman said. Some researchers are speculating that more people buying guns could be contributing to the increase in homicides, she said.
Guns were involved in 15 of North Dakota's homicides in 2020, which is consistent with previous years as usually half the yearly homicides involve firearms, Stenehjem said.
Even though some crimes have increased during the pandemic, others have decreased such as muggings and residential burglaries. Stichman noted.
Crime in North Dakota is low compared to the rest of the U.S., and many types of crimes saw a decrease from 2019 to 2020, including rape, stalking and sexual assault.
Drug and narcotic violations decreased by 5% from 2019 to 2020, which Stenehjem said is “good news for all.”
Aggravated assaults increased 10% in 2020 after decreasing 13% in 2019, according to state data. Stenehjem said the state is trying to figure out what is driving up the number of these assaults.
One of the most striking statistics from the newly-released data, Stenehjem said, is the number of identity theft reports increased nearly 174% from 2019 to 2020. The increase is a result of many fraudulent claims for pandemic unemployment benefits, he said.
The number of thefts of motor vehicle parts increased by 127% mostly due to people taking catalytic converters from cars, Stenehjem said, adding that many people steal and sell them for parts. Every law enforcement agency in the state is reporting catalytic converter thefts, he said.
In the coming months, Stenehjem said the state will further analyze the 2020 crime data to determine what impacts the COVID-19 pandemic had on crime in the state.
Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read the North Dakota 2020 homicide report:
Read the North Dakota 2020 crime report: