Why A City’s Homicide Numbers Can Go Down During The Year


Last Wednesday morning, Washington, D.C.’s homicide count stood at 106. By nightfall, it was 105. The Washington Post says that’s because on that day, authorities concluded that one shooter was acting in self-defense, making the death legally justified. A homicide count, commonly seen as a measure of violence in cities, is not a precise measure of the number of killings in a calendar year. It excludes some violence, and it sometimes includes violence from previous years. A city's homicide count can be used to judge the success of a mayor or police chief. It can stain a city as lost to despair, the way Detroit is now, the way Washington, D.C., used to be. The FBI publishes a list of homicides numbers every year and warns not to compare cities, followed almost immediately with lists comparing cities. The media and politicians are equally guilty of using that one statistic to declare their city safe or dangerous.

The homicide number is believed to be the most reliable crime statistic, even though it represents a minuscule percentage of any big city's overall crime. New York recorded 321 killings in 2014, out of 104,000 felonies, less than one-half of 1 percent. A homicide is a killing of one person by another, which include accidents and those justified by self-defense. The police generally count only the deaths being investigated at that moment as crimes. Three fatal shootings in the District went on the list, under the belief the acts were criminal, and were removed after investigators proved otherwise. A robber killed by a man who wrestled away a shotgun from him and fired never made the list, as it seemed justified from the start. Same for the killing of a 13-year-old boy whom police said was accidentally shot by his best friend. All were ruled homicides. Police said none was a crime. The list doesn't always reflect the number of killings within a jurisdiction, but rather the number of killings investigated by the police agency that keeps the list.

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