Saturday, September 21, 2013

GateHouse: Homicide trends driven by local influences

Matthew T. Mangino
GateHouse News Service
September 20, 2013

In late 2011, Charles Lane’s column in The Washington Post touted America's dramatic decline in crime. He gleefully suggested that, "With luck, the United States could soon equal its lowest homicide rate of the modern era: 4.0 per 100,000, recorded in 1957." Well, that hasn’t happened.

Murder is on the rise.  According to the 2012 edition of the FBI’s annual report Crime in the United States released this month, homicide increased by 1.1 percent last year.

Each year, law enforcement agencies voluntarily provide offense and arrest data through the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. That data revealed that there were 215 more murders in 2012 than in 2011.

However, before you sound the alarm, the murder rate is still as low as it has been in more than 40 years.

Forty years ago, there were 18,670 murders nationwide. Last year, there were 14,827. Although the difference is a few thousand, the rate of homicide is almost half of what it was.

To get an accurate picture of the pervasiveness of homicide, criminologists look at the number of murders per 100,000 people. In 1972, the rate was 9 per 100,000; in 2012, it was 4.7 per 100,000.
Homicide is a mixed bag.

Detroit pulled even with New York City for the first six months of 2013. We’re not taking about the Tigers and the Yankees. New York City has about 8.3 million residents and had 154 murders for the first half of 2013. Detroit has a population of about 700,000 and had 153 murders. Baltimore is another example. New York City has 13 times as many people as Baltimore but as of Aug. 31, Baltimore had 152 homicides. New York had 213.

The news is not all bad. In Philadelphia, the 115 murders for the first half of 2013 put the city at more than 42 percent below the murder rate for the same time last year, marking a 45-year low in the city’s homicide rate.

In early May, the Chicago Police Department released figures indicating the city marked a 43 percent decline in the number of murders over the first four months of 2013, as compared to the same period last year. For the first quarter of year, Chicago registered 93 murders, its lowest January-to-April tally since 1963.

On the other hand, the Bay Area’s three largest cities, San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland, have experienced a 52 percent increase in homicides over the past two years.

Why the inconsistency or disparity in the rate of homicide?

Crime trends are much more likely to vary across cities, and that has been the case since 2000, when the national murder trend flattened. This suggests that recent crime trends have been driven more by local conditions than by any general national demographic, incarceration, or economic trend according to Alfred Blumstein and Richard Rosenfeld in Factors Contributing to U.S. Crime Trends.

According to Blumstein and Rosenfeld, some factors are distinctively local, such as policing tactics; some may be regional, such as the progression of a particular drug market; and some may be national, such as the result of a change in federal public assistance policies. Local factors also include policing strategies, and management; firearm availability; the presence of local gangs; and availability of social services.

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil once said that “all politics is local.” The same can be said for homicide. The variations are astounding. New York City’s decline has been described as “miraculous,” with a homicide rate of 3.83 per 100,000 people. Twelve miles down the New Jersey Turnpike, the city of Newark has a homicide rate of 33.1 per 100,000.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George and the former district attorney for Lawrence County, Pa. You can read his blog at and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.

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