Murder and Statistics
By Karen Sternheimer
If you saw the national news on June 4th, you probably heard a frightening story. The FBI released their preliminary report of crimes that occurred in 2006. According to the report, murder is on the rise—up 6.7 percent in America's biggest cities. Experts warned we could be in for a new crime wave, and offered explanations for the upswing. Should we be afraid?
Maybe. Or Maybe not.
Let’s consider the basic implication when we hear grim statistics like this: things really are getting worse, and there is a number to prove it. But in this case, and in many others, we only hear some of the numbers; maybe just one if it seems to tell a dramatic story. What else should we consider before deciding that
First, fortunately, murder is one of the rarest crimes. Of all violent crimes reported to police in 2005 (which includes crimes like rape, assault, and robbery), only 1.2 percent of those were homicides. But we have a fascination with murder—think of what would become of network television dramas if shows like CSI or Law and Order weren’t on the air? We are attracted to popular culture that helps us to deal with the scariest parts of the human experience from a safe distance. But sometimes this focus can make us think that the world is a more dangerous place than it actually is.
Second, let’s get back to the 6.7 percent rise that the major news networks grimly reported. Based on ten cities with populations over one million, this number reflects approximately 194 more homicides than in 2005. No doubt, every homicide is a tragedy and has a ripple effect that goes way beyond the victims themselves, but this is a relatively small number when you consider the combined populations of those ten cities.
Just over 25 million people live in the nation’s largest cities, and according to these early reports in 2006 3,085 people were killed, or one-tenth of one percent of the population.
By contrast, nearly 95 million Americans live in smaller cities that experienced reductions in homicide. Cities with 50,000 to 99,000 residents actually experienced a 6.9 percent decline in 2006, but this rarely made it into the news reports.
Why the omission? Could it be that fewer people would be affected in smaller cities, and the national news media wouldn’t report on something that only impacts a small group? Actually, more people live in mid-sized cities than those with more than one million residents.
Bad news gets our attention. Consider this headline: “Murder Rises Three-Tenths of a Percent!” Not impressed? Apparently news organizations weren’t either, but that’s the overall change from 2005 to 2006 nationwide. This change translates to about fifty more homicides in a population of 300 million. Again, each murder is a tragedy, but three-tenths of a percent raise hardly suggests a major upward trend.
Hearing about rises in crime from year to year, no matter how remote, is still frightening--sort of like a reverse-lottery you don’t want to win. News reports have a way to stoke this fear. They are not lying when they say that we have experienced increases in homicides in three of the last four years. That sounds like an ominous trend, no matter how small.
But since spiking in 1991, both murder and violent crimes in general have plummeted. Even with the estimated increase in 2006, nearly 8,000 fewer people were murdered last year compared with the period when homicide rates were highest. The graph below gives you a visual perspective of the long-term trends, and how the mostly good news has been distorted.
It’s also important to keep in mind that we are not all at equal risk for being the victims of homicide. Murder victims are overwhelmingly male; despite the long-held beliefs of female vulnerability, fully 79 percent of those killed are male.
Nearly half of all of these mostly male victims are African American, yet African Americans comprise only about eleven percent of the total population. This means that African Americans are four times more likely to be killed than we would expect by chance. The odds of an African American male becoming a homicide victim (33.4 per 100,000 people) is six times greater than the general population (5.6 per 100,000), and eight times greater than for white males (4.4 per 100,000).
In addition to masking racial inequality, a big drawback to national data is that homicide is a local, rather than national problem. Some cities experienced major declines in homicides, while others, such as New Orleans, had large increases. Especially since the hurricanes of 2005, this city has faced many well-documented problems that can’t be generalized to the country as a whole.
New Orleans has traditionally been a city with a high poverty rate. Within cities,homicide rates also tend to be higher within areas with large concentrations of people living in poverty. While the FBI data contains information about the race of the victim and offender (but still uses the categories “white,” “black,” “other,” an issue for another column), there is no information on the income levels of those involved.
So do national murder rates matter at all? On many levels, not really. The numbers help us overlook the very real disparities in safety in our country, and they elide some of the major causes for these differences--such as racial segregation and the lack of opportunity many Americans experience.
National numbers aren’t totally useless, though. We can compare our figures to those of other industrialized nations to see that far more people are killed in the U.S. than in many countries around the world.
Seemingly simple numbers, like those presented in June 4th news reports, actually create more sociological questions than they answer. And the answers are invariably complex, varied, and probably don’t make easy-to-digest sound bites. What do you think the answers are?