Murder in America


When it comes to homicide in the United States, is there nowhere to go but up? The Crime Report looks at murder trends for 2010 and asks some of the country's leading criminologists where we go from here.

The national murder rate won't budge much for 2010, but the fluctuating body counts in different cities can lead to curious whys and wherefores.

For example, Phoenix and Cleveland each reported steep declines in homicide during 2010, but they took different routes to the same destination. As Dec. 31 drew near, Phoenix was on pace to finish the year with fewer than 100 murders, down about 25 percent from 2009. Police there cited more cops on the street as a key factor.

Cleveland, meanwhile, was headed toward a murder total of about 70, a decrease of 40 percent from 2009. There, the decline occurred despite a shrunken police force–about 400 fewer officers than in 2000–although the city still has more than the national average of about two officers per 1,000 residents.

It raises the question of whether police really have an impact on murder, a generation after conventional reactive crime strategies proved futile against crack cocaine-driven violence.

As Northeastern University's James Alan Fox noted, “Most homicides occur outside of the view of police.”

The Phoenix-Cleveland dichotomy illustrates “the complexity of murder,” said Eli Silverman, professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Police have learned, he added, that effective prevention hinges on proactive “smart policing,” with deployments based upon data analysis, not merely numbers of cops.

“One misconception I often hear is that homicide is a mystery–that there's no way of explaining it, or explaining its increases and decreases,” said Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Homicide exhibits patterned regularities, as do other crimes. I'm not suggesting it's easy or a simple matter to prevent or control homicide. But I don't agree with the idea that it's fully mysterious and beyond comprehension, beyond theoretical explanation, beyond the efforts of law enforcement.”

Rosenfeld said he expects national homicide figures for 2010 to be about the same as 2009, when U.S. law enforcers tallied 15,241 bodies.

Newton's Law of Criminology

Silverman predicts a modest increase for the year when the FBI announces its tabulations in the spring. Fox also expects a slight increase, in part because homicides declined 8 percent in 2009 over 2008. He called it “Newton's Law of Criminology”: What goes up comes down, and vice versa.

In either case, the national murder rate is likely to remain an average of approximately five homicides for every 100,000 people, the rate that prevailed throughout the 2000s. That was the standard rate in America until the late 1960s, when it began to climb. It doubled to 10.2 per 100,000 by 1980, then peaked again in the early 90s.

As always, murder trends varied from city to city in 2010.

Homicide numbers for Chicago, Baltimore and St. Louis were flat compared with 2009.

Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta and Washington, D.C., were expected to join Phoenix and Cleveland with declines. Each was down five percent to 20 percent as the year-end approached.

Others were headed in the opposite direction, including New York and Milwaukee, which were both on pace to show homicide increases of about 15 percent over last year. Robbery increased in New York in 2010, as well, so some observers see an economic component to the city's homicide increase. Some in Milwaukee cite an increase in domestic violence as one factor in the homicide increase there.

Among the biggest gainers were Boston and Austin. Boston was headed for a total of about 75 homicides, up roughly 40 percent from 2009; and Austin, with a total approaching 40, was at risk of doubling its 2009 tally of 22.

Boston police cited an increase in drug crime that drove violence up, while Austin cops blamed an increase in intimate-partner violence, perhaps spurred by the poor economy. The Orlando area also reported a spike in domestic homicides in 2010. The experts agreed there is insufficient evidence of a larger pattern.

Neither city will come close to the record murder levels of 1993, when the nation recorded 24,526 homicide victims. The decline of 8,000 bodies to today's level equates to about 154 fewer victims each week, or 22 per day. Even at today's lower rate, the U.S. still has three to four times the murders of Canada and most western European countries.

“I don't think we've necessarily bottomed out,” said Rosenfeld. “Homicide rates aren't going to go to zero…But there is room for a continuing drop in some cities.”

He said New York, with its astonishing decline from seven murders a day in 1993 to one a day now, will have difficulty cutting homicides further. But other traditionally high-crime cities–St. Louis, Detroit, New Orleans–have room for improvement.

Graying of America

Fox said the graying of America leads him to expect a continuing gradual slide in the national homicide rates since older people commit fewer crimes. But he said “pockets of problems” persist.

“For some Americans in areas of cities like Boston, Washington and Detroit, the sound of gunfire is still a part of their daily lives, in spite of what the statistics say,” said Fox. “Homicides are not under control in those neighborhoods, and it's important that we not get fooled into thinking that all of our problems are over, because they're not.”

Silverman suggested that the dozens of American cities facing law enforcement staffing cuts will spend 2011 and beyond “in a fight to hold onto the gains they've made against crime.”

“I don't know if we've bottomed out permanently, but for right now I think we've bottomed out,” he said. “The economy, the increased abuse of prescription narcotics–these are factors that could cause crime to rise.”

Alfred Blumstein, a Carnegie Mellon University criminologist who has been observing murder for decades, said narcotics-related violence is the most likely factor to drive murder up, the template from the crack decade that began in 1984.

“The most likely move to any significant degree is a change in drug markets that use violence as a means of dealing with their competition and dispute resolution,” said Blumstein. “That was an important factor in the ups and downs of the 80s and the peaks of violent crime in the 90s. Conversely, a major contributor to the decline of crime was the decline of the crack market.”

Prescription drug abuse seemed to spike in 2010, but Blumstein said he was unaware of evidence that this was driving violent crime up like crack did. And he said he had not seen proof of a crime increase driven by the economy.

“Many people expected the murder rate to go up last year, with the economy the way it was. Yet violent crime declined–8 percent for both murder and robbery,” Blumstein said. “To me, what has been very impressive since 2000 is the general flatness of murder rates.”

Despite the statistics, Blumstein noted, citizens in many places seem convinced that murder is worse than ever, perhaps due to the inordinate attention the media give to awful but aberrational crimes. Stranger-murders get the most attention, even though they are relatively rare in America, where roughly eight in 10 murder victims are killed by someone they know.

“The major public misconception about murder comes from the heinous event that captures the headlines, and especially the cable news programs,” Blumstein said. “Even though these are unusual events, people suddenly get stricken with fear that it might happen to them.”

It begs the question of whether the headline crime of murder is an appropriate bellwether of the nation's overall safety.

“Robbery might be a better bellwether crime because there are so many more of them,” said Rosenfeld. “But murder certainly is the most reliably measured crime, as well as the most serious, and it therefore gets the most attention from criminologists and policymakers. Other crimes, conversely, are probably a better bellwether for homicide. Increases in things like drug arrests and robberies serve as harbingers of an increase in homicide.”

'The El Paso Miracle'

Perhaps the most captivating homicide story in the U.S. this year is what some call “the El Paso Miracle.”

The southwest Texas city of 600,000 had recorded just three homicides through mid-December, down from an annual average of about 15 over the past decade. Meanwhile, Ciudad Juarez, its twin city across the Rio Grande, had more than 3,000 murders for the year, an average of about 10 per day.

Seattle, with the same population as El Paso, will finish the year with about 20 murders. Baltimore, only slightly larger, recorded 210 murders through Dec. 15.

“What's intriguing is how the enormous numbers of homicides in Juarez attributed to the drug cartels have failed to traverse across the border,” said Blumstein. “It's an impressive indication that El Paso–the police and the border patrol and so forth–has done a good job of guarding the border to keep the cartels out of this country.”

Rosenfeld said El Paso, with a vast number of Mexican immigrants among a population that is more than half Latino, disproves the conventional wisdom that equates immigration and crime.

“It's hard to escape the conclusion that El Paso puts the lie to the idea that immigration produces high levels of violent crime,” he said. “If anything, immigration has the opposite effect. Generally speaking, we don't find comparatively high homicides for cities with large numbers of immigrants.”

David J. Krajicek, a contributing editor of The Crime Report, writes “The Justice Story” for The New York Daily News. His latest book is Murder, American Style: 50 Unforgettable True Stories About Love Gone Wrong.

Photo by John A. Ryan via Flickr.

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