After suffering record homicides during the pandemic, Milwaukee is reporting fewer this year. Nonfatal shootings are a different story.

homicides in Milwaukee
Data is from the Wisconsin Department of Justice.


Six months into the year, homicides are down about 30% in Milwaukee, mirroring the national decline in homicides and other violent crime following a surge during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a welcome respite for a city that endured a record number of killings the previous three years, each higher than the last.

But nonfatal shootings — when a person is hit but doesn’t die — continue to rise. The Milwaukee Police Department’s crime database reports that number has jumped about 6% since this time last year.

In raw numbers, the Milwaukee Police Department’s crime database reports 85 homicides as of July 20, compared to 120 at the same time last year. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tracks homicides on its own database, and sets the number at 92 to date.

homicides in Milwaukee
Assistant Chief Nicole Waldner of the Milwaukee Police Department

The police department’s database counted 193 homicides in 2021 and 215 last year. The newspaper’s database recorded 197 and 224, respectively.

Asked about the discrepancy via email, the Milwaukee Police Department Public Information Office had the following to say:

“As homicides are investigated/cleared it can be determined that the case is not a homicide i.e., self-defense. The numbers can change and cases can be removed from the overall numbers for this reason.”

Nearly 90% of the homicide victims have been male and nearly 80% have been Black, according to the Journal Sentinel’s database. Nearly 90% of the victims died from gunshot wounds.

Milwaukee Assistant Police Chief Nicole Waldner cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions from the drop in homicides.

“It’s not like we’re dealing with professional hit people here,” she said. “A lot of the difference between a nonfatal shooting and a homicide is either luck, or a fraction of a millimeter from an artery.”

Still, Waldner noted, the total number of shootings in the city — fatal and not — are slightly lower than the number at this time last year.

“I’m not going to celebrate after a half of year of data, because I think a lot of it is just a matter of situational circumstance or luck,” she said. “To tout a change in progress when it comes to violent crime, you need to see a downward trend for years. There have to be systematic changes in our culture for that to happen.”

A crucial factor in the violent crime surge of the past few years was the economic, social and psychological pressure the pandemic exerted across the population, said Theodore Lentz, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology at UW-Milwaukee​.

“Those strains can heighten tensions, make people more frustrated and put people in more difficult situations,” he said. “Those tensions matter. They do tend to be associated with increases in violence.”

As society largely has returned to its pre-pandemic existence, Lentz said violent crime might do the same.

Theodore Lentz, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice & Criminology at UW-Milwaukee​.

It’s impossible to know at this time if the early violent crime statistics are part of a larger trend or a brief deviation from the level of violence that occurred during the pandemic, said Nick Matuszewski, the Policy and Strategic Partnerships Manager for the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE) Educational Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing gun violence through education and advocacy. And more comprehensive data is needed to provide a clearer explanation for why the surge happened in the first place, he said. 

Matuszewski can, however, make one connection.

“It’s clear that the spike in homicides and gun violence since 2020 matches up with the increase in gun sales, especially to first-time buyers,” he noted. “Research indicates that more gun owners can lead to more gun violence.”

The pandemic surge in violence was followed by an increase in dissatisfaction with the police in a survey the city of Milwaukee gives to residents, Lentz noted.

Last year, 36% of Milwaukee residents were “not very” or “not at all satisfied” overall with the Milwaukee Police Department, the survey revealed. In 2019, residents who were “not at all satisfied” totaled 21%.

Strategies exist to mitigate gun violence, Matuszewski said. They include Extreme Risk Laws, or Red Flag laws, which allow courts to temporarily prevent a person from accessing their guns, universal background checks on gun purchases, and increased funding for community violence intervention programs, which the city of Milwaukee has in place to some degree.

The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.

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