Murders matter

First Posted: 1/11/2015

JANUARY 7, 2015 — As sporadic demonstrations continue against the killings of two unarmed black men by white officers last year, annual tallies showing fewer murders in a number of big cities offer a different perspective on policing.

Common among cities with fewer homicides are programs targeting not only specific high-crime areas, but also individuals whose history with violence makes them more likely to be involved in a homicide, either as victim or perpetrator.

Cities with fewer murders include Chicago: 407, compared with 419 in 2013; New York: 332, compared with 335; Detroit: 300, compared with 333; and Baltimore: 211, compared with 235. New York cut its murder rate to 3.95 per 100,000 residents last year. Philadelphia and Chicago averaged more than 15 murders per 100,000 residents. Detroit led the nation with 45 per 100,000.

Several big cities saw their murder numbers rise significantly last year, including St. Louis, which experienced a 30 percent increase, from 120 to 159 — the most since 2008, when it had 167. Boston also experienced a nearly 30 percent jump in homicides last year, but its total was just 52, compared with 41 in 2013.

Philadelphia’s 248 murders last year were one more than in 2013, when the city had the fewest homicides since 1967. Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey credited an overall strategy that makes use of crime data, targets known offenders, stresses community outreach, and holds officers accountable.

Temple University criminal justice professor Jerry Ratcliffe says murder rates can be deceiving. In a blog post, he noted, “Homicides comprise so little of the work of a police agency, and the chances of most people being a victim of homicide are so low, that they tell us little about the experienced crime rate or the quality of life for city residents.”

That’s true to an extent. However, as Ramsey noted, Philadelphia’s 37 percent decline in homicides since 2007 is largely due to a comprehensive crime strategy that addresses more than the murder rate. Mayor Nutter, speaking to reporters Monday, noted the importance of police-community relations in carrying out that strategy. There must be collaboration between police and the public.

Many murders, of course, are immune to policing strategy. Police can’t anticipate when a domestic dispute will become deadly. They can’t always arrive in time to prevent a street argument from escalating into a gunfight. The difference between an assault and a homicide might be the medical treatment a victim receives.

Police can’t control that. What they can control is the effort they put into helping communities create environments that discourage the behaviors that lead to murder.

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