In Marion County, a swampy stretch of South Carolina, Sheriff Brian Wallace and his deputies worked nine killings in 2021, including the execution-style shooting of an 80-year-old retired teacher. It was the highest annual body count Wallace had seen since he joined the small department more than two decades ago. Violent crime isn’t rising just in cities. Murder rates across the rural U.S. have soared during the pandemic, bringing the kind of extreme violence long associated with major metropolises to the smallest communities, the Wall Street Journal reports. Homicide rates in the rural U.S. rose twenty five percent in 2020, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was the largest rural increase since the agency began tracking such data in 1999. The CDC considers counties rural if they are located outside metropolitan areas defined by the federal government. The rise came close to the thirty percent spike in homicides in metropolitan areas in 2020.
The CDC hasn’t analyzed 2021 homicide data yet. In some rural counties, murder rates remained high last year, while in others they have begun to recede along with COVID, data from local law-enforcement agencies show. In cities, law enforcement and civic leaders have blamed the crime increase on factors such as police pulling back after racial-justice protests, the proliferation of guns, the release of more criminal suspects without bail and a pandemic pause in gang-violence prevention programs. In rural counties, where ties between police and locals are often less fraught, officials say the reasons for the rising violence are hard to pinpoint. They speculate that the breakdown of deeply rooted social connections that bind together many small communities, coupled with the stress of the pandemic, played a role. Pastors point to the suspension of rituals such as in-person church services, town gatherings and everyday exchanges between neighbors. Such interactions can help to prevent conflicts from turning violent.