January 2, 2004
The Year in Murder
It's been a mixed year for homicide: the rate was down in Chicago, LA, and DC, but up in New York. The Windy City just barely defeated us for the title of Murder Capital. The score: Chicago: 599, New York 596. But some might say we had an unfair advantage anyway: Chicago has only about 1/3 of the population of NYC.
Washington, D.C., had 247 murders in 2003 (down a few), Los Angeles had just under 500, down about 170 from last year. St Louis was down, too, but Baltimore was up. The killers there are using more bullets per shooting, they say. Per capita, poor old Gary, Indiana is the winner again, for the ninth year in a row, but let's be fair: they only had 69 suspicious deaths.
If these other cities have anyone to thank for their declining rates, it might be New York. Ever since NYC introduced the CompStat system, we've gotten a handle on violent crime, and other cities are learning from us. It's remarkable that some of these cities, even in the midst of a pretty dark economic climate, can make such progress in reducing homicides. Cutting the murder rate by almost 20% in one year is a testament to the benefits of adopting NYC's approach. So why did our murder rate climb by 9 deaths this year? I would chalk it up to the sustained poor economic climate and the perception (fair or not) that Bloomberg is not as tough as Giuliani on crime. Even so, it's almost incredible to think that just as recently as the early 1990s, there were 2,000 homicides a year in the city.
As long as our violent crime rates continue to trend downwards or stay flat I think we'll be okay, but it makes you wonder what the mayoral administrations of the 70s and 80s were doing as the rate just kept going up and up and up. And it also makes you wonder how low the rate can go. As our techniques for reducing crime become more refined, and the economy improves, would it be possible 5 years from now to have a mere 200 killings a year? Or fewer? Or is it just a part of American urban life that there is some kind of statistical wall that we will never be able to penetrate, regardless of crime prevention programs and economic and social conditions? Maybe to get those kind of results, we would have to spend as much effort on social programs as we do crime-fighting, but I don't think any city has offered itself as a test case for such an enterprise. Ironically, no mayor is going to look "tough on crime" if he advocates spending a sizable amount of a city's budget on "soft" programs intended to reduce crime.
Maybe violence this year will motivate the powers-that-be to take some additional steps, however: already this year, we've had three murders, a dozen shootings, and a half-dozen stabbings.
Here's an article summarizing the homicide rates in several large cities, the Washington Post's coverage of DC's murders, the NYT's coverage of 2003 murders in this city, and lastly, a detailed special report in the LA Times about the high rate of unsolved murders in that city. The article includes an interactive Flash presentation that shows the relationship between zip codes and the probability that a murder will be solved.