Since D.C. is the nation’s capital, things that happen here have a disproportionate influence on the policy-making class (politicians, pundits, reporters, and policy wonks). While that’s an unfair burden for any city to bear, especially one that has limited control over its affairs (Got Statehood?), that is the unfortunate reality. D.C.’s 33 percent increase in homicides has made national news, and no doubt, will be misused by people who don’t give a shit about the residents of D.C., but simply want to plug their own agenda.
What has puzzled me, along with the whole damn city, is the underlying cause of this increase in murders. Thankfully, WE HAZ DATAZ! The MPD has a very good crime statistics page, so we can compare last year’s crimes to date, with this year’s (i.e., Jan. 1, 2014 to Aug. 21, 2014 versus Jan. 1, 2015 to Aug. 21, 2015). You can download the data I used here (.xlsx file).
Here’s the key point: homicides are up 33 percent (74 vs. 96), but violent crimes overall are only up 2.5 percent (3718 vs. 3812). In other words, in 2014, 1.9% of all violent crimes resulted in a homicide, while in 2015, 2.5% of all violent crimes resulted in a homicide. We can mix-and-match various categories (e.g., remove sexual assaults from the total crimes, and so on; it’s in the .xlsx file), but there are really two take-home messages:
1) Crime is deadlier this year, but it is not more prevalent.
2) Gun-related robberies and assaults are up twenty percent relative to the same time last year.
Some of the increased lethality is just dumb bad luck: a recent murder of a bystander on U Street–he was killed while getting out of a cab–was just bad timing (to be utterly callous about it). If he exits on the other side of the taxi, he lives and only has a scary story to tell. But one does have to wonder just what might be making this year’s crimes more deadly on the whole. It might have something to do with point #2 in the previous paragraph–guns.
It’s also worth looking at the police district figures. In an effort to improve the efficiency of the D.C. government, police district boundaries line up nicely with neighborhood and ward boundaries. HA! I MAKE THE FUNNY! They don’t. But we can still try to make sense of the district figures.
District 7, Anacostia and south thereof, homicides increased from nineteen to thirty-five, even as total violent crimes decreased (711 vs. 684). Gun-related crimes increased about twenty percent. On the other hand, District 6 (east of the river, north of Anacostia), last year’s homicide ‘winner’, saw massive plunges in crime across the board, including homicides (21 vs. 14) and gun-related crimes dropped by around fifteen percent (297 vs. 262). Again, there’s a common theme.
What’s freaking out the wealthier parts of town, districts 2 and 3, is that homicides are up, even they are much rarer than in districts 6 or 7. So obviously, we are being overrun by a massive crime wave.
In all seriousness, there’s a very obvious problem here: gun-related crimes have risen. This has an obvious effect on the number of homicides. Instead of preaching about values ([cough] Courtland Milloy [cough]), figure out how more guns relative to last year are getting into D.C. and stop that flow of guns.
Broad, sweeping, and uninformed generalizations aren’t helpful. At all.
Bodies are a lot harder to hide, avoid reporting, misclassify or discourage reporting, etc. and are less affected by breakdowns in the trust between police and a population. Sure *solve* rates for murders might go down, but if the body shows up it is still counted, while other crimes may just be underreported.
How do you know this is not the dynamic that is happening here? I’ve seen murder trends before, through time and across cities, be correlated with the liklihood of police forces downgrading other types of assaults, failing to properly classify them, discouraging reporting in the first place, etc.
Are murder solve rates still holding steady or going up, indicating community trust in police processes is still high? Are insurance claims or calls to RAINN or other groups matching the trends of the “official” numbers?
Even the gun related crimes going up similar but a little less than the murder rate makes sense– a crime that involves a gun is less likely to be misclassified or immediately dismissed by a police force and more likely to be reported even through larger barriers to trusting police.
Police forces that want to massage their numbers and a community losing respect for the force seem extremely likely to explain these numbers– crime suddenly changing in character and becoming more severe per reported incident just doesn’t seem nearly so likely.