Crime and Punishment 2016


Posted 12/17/16, edited 12/18/16

IS TRUMP RIGHT ABOUT THE INNER CITIES?

America’s low-income communities desperately need a New Deal

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. On the evening before Thanksgiving, as residents of Southern California prepared to celebrate the forthcoming holiday with family and friends, a 16-year old high school student was on the way home from church, riding in the family car, her dog on her lap.

     Danah Rojo-Rivas didn’t survive the trip, and neither would the pooch. About 9:30 pm, as their vehicle drove through Lynwood, a low-income, predominantly minority city with a substantial violent crime problem, gunfire erupted. A bullet fired by gang members riding in one vehicle at gangsters riding in another pierced the car, striking Danah and instantly killing her.

     Her mother and brother, who were also in the vehicle, weren’t hurt. Alas, the dog bolted and got run over.

     Incredibly – or perhaps, not – this horrifying event received only modest attention. Other than an offer by the County Board of Supervisors of a $20,000 reward for information (later raised to $30,000), the deplorable specter of an innocent girl being viciously gunned down was treated as just another murder in a murderous place. A GoFundMe memorial page was set up by the family to cover funeral costs, and so far there haven’t been any arrests.


     “You’re the only one that can get you out of this ghetto.” That was the message that Regina Bejarano, a 47-year old single mother of five, prayed would get through to her kids. With sixty-five homicides so far this year, violence-ridden San Bernardino, an eastern Los Angeles County community of 216,000, was decidedly chancy, and life in her gang-infested neighborhood particularly so. On the last day of August unknown hooligans walked up to their apartment and opened fire, wounding her 19-year-old son, a goddaughter and a family friend.

     Fortunately, no one died. Neither was anyone arrested. Desperate to escape the treacherous city where she was raised, Ms. Bejarano began frantically searching for a safe, affordable place far from the mayhem. She was still looking on October 30 when Joseph, her 17-year old, left on a brief walk to visit his cousin. He never got there. Police later arrested Miguel Cordova, 18, for shooting and killing Joseph in what authorities say was a gang-inspired murder.

     Ms. Bejarano still intends for the family to relocate. And although it’s only a couple blocks away, she always drives to the spot where Joseph died. It’s far too dangerous to walk.


     Danah Rojo-Rivas and Joseph Bejarano died in gang shootings; one by accident, the other on purpose. Shamefully, while many of our nation’s urban areas experience appalling levels of mayhem – St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, Oakland, Memphis and Chicago are only a few examples – President Obama has mostly kept mum.

     Well, there is one exception. Three years ago, when inner-city gang members shot and killed Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year old high school student, Michelle Obama attended the young woman’s funeral. Hadiya was special because she had performed, along with classmates, at the President’s second inauguration, in Chicago, the city where he was raised. President Obama later spoke of the tragedy in a speech and in his State of the Union address, both times while urging action on Federal gun laws. He’s otherwise fastidiously avoided addressing – or dealing with – the disastrous cycle of poverty and violence that besets America’s inner cities. That oversight has puzzled more than this observer. Here’s a recent assessment of the President’s legacy by someone whom your writer never thought he’d be quoting – the redoubtable Louis Farrakhan:

    …Mr. President, you’re from Chicago, and so am I. I go out in the streets with the people. I visited the worst neighborhoods. I talked to the gangs. And while I was out there talking to them, they said “You know, Farrakhan, the president ain’t never come. Could you get him to come and look after us?” There’s your legacy, Mr. President. It’s in the streets with your suffering people, Mr. President. And if you can’t go and see about them, then don’t worry about your legacy ’cause the white people that you served so well, they’ll preserve your legacy…

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     Many progressives consider the term “inner city” a needlessly cruel way to denote lower-income urban neighborhoods. Yet whatever one wishes to call these places – for Mr. Farrakhan, it’s “the streets” – that’s where violence takes its most shocking toll. Click on “Location, Location, Location” and look up “Vermont Square” on the Murder Rate graph. This was the place called home by the senior citizen who convinced city fathers to help destigmatize notorious South-Central Los Angeles by dropping “Central” from its place name. Well, good luck with that. Crime in Southern California may have receded from its crack-fueled peak in the early 90s, but gross inequities in personal risk persist. Note, for example, that Vermont Square’s 2015 ghastly murder rate of 24.62 per 100,000 (44,662 residents, 11 homicides) is thirteen times that of Westwood, an upper-middle class area where the price of an ordinary home easily tops a million bucks (1 homicide/51,485 residents/rate 1.94).

     It’s not just La-La land. Life in poor areas anywhere can prove dangerous. That includes the President’s hometown. (For a new assessment of violence in inner-city Chicago, click here.)


     What’s being done to address the pressing needs of inner cities? Considering their lamentable state, far from enough. Government funding for housing assistance, job training, education, child care and drug and alcohol treatment is grossly inadequate, constraining both direct action and heroic efforts by citizen groups and non-profits. (For the sobering experiences of a major public-private effort click here.) Meanwhile overtaxed, wary police and social workers provide what fleeting, temporary relief they can. And as we know, occasionally make things worse.

     Really, for all the jawboning about “urban renewal” and such it seems that most of what gets renewed every four years is disinterest and neglect. So when then-candidate Donald Trump – a Republican – got on the soapbox about fighting urban blight and disorder, even a few Democrats found something to like. In an article published shortly before the election, award-winning New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones concluded, to her evident surprise, that Trump “was speaking more directly about the particular struggles of working-class black Americans and describing how the government should help them more than any presidential candidate in years.”

     Was she exaggerating? Consider Trump’s expansive view about his responsibility to the denizens of inner-city Milwaukee:

    Our job is to make life more comfortable for the African-American parent who wants their kids to be able to safely walk the streets. Or the senior citizen waiting for a bus, or the young child walking home from school. For every one violent protester, there are a hundred moms and dads and kids on the same city block who just want to be able to sleep safely at night.

     Still, other than, say, paying for more cops, what would Trump actually do? A hint of his approach came during a Charlotte speech where he offered a “New Deal for Black America” that used tax holidays and other incentives to spur investment in the inner cities. His message resonated with the host of a local radio program, who complained that the black community had been ignored by the present Administration: “As an African-American, I haven’t seen anything that Obama has actually done.”

     Well, one thing that the current President and his predecessors have done is build up America’s defense arsenal, creating lots of middle-class jobs and, not incidentally, helping make a gaggle of industrialists filthy rich. Consider, for example, Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. So far, it has cost taxpayers $100 billion, a stunning amount that’s raised a lot of eyebrows, from Senator John McCain (he called the situation a “scandal and a tragedy”) to the President-elect’s. Here’s his Tweet on point: “The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.” He didn’t say, but there’s a special place where “billions” might do some good…

     Alas, in his final end-of-year press conference on December 16, which your blogger listened to in its near-entirety (our local NPR station eventually cut away), President Obama was silent about urban America. Other than for briefly reassuring his flock that, yes, he worried every night about their economic well-being, it was all about the election and foreign policy. To be sure, the cities are in large part the responsibility of local and State officials, so it’s likely inevitable that the President would be preoccupied by matters that fall within his exclusive purview, such as the tragedy besetting the innocent citizens of Aleppo and Sudan. Yet one wonders whether our nation’s top elected official shouldn’t be equally determined to keep vulnerable residents of the U.S. from suffering a similar fate. The late
Danah Rojo-Rivas, Joseph Bejarano and Hadiya Pendleton would have probably agreed.

     Parsing campaign rhetoric is a fraught enterprise, and we’ll leave it for the reader to intuit the President-elect’s real intentions. His emphasis on the inner city, though, is refreshing. As long as it’s not all about bricks and mortar, his “New Deal” seems appealing. One-hundred billion bucks would be a good start.

UPDATE (6/9/17): In an impacted Chicago neighborhood two teens walked up to a man standing on the sidewalk, speaking with a woman and two children sitting in a car. They asked what gang he was in and he replied “I’m with my kids.” One teen then shot him dead.

UPDATE (5/28/17): For the third year in a row, Chicago’s population shrank. It’s the only major city where that’s happened. Why? is complicated, but here’s what one expat whose home was “robbed twice” had to say: “It's not just limited to poor neighborhoods. Trouble could strike anywhere.”

UPDATE (2/15/17): Three Chicago children ranging from 2 to 12 years of age fell to gunfire between February 11 and 14. So far one suspect, 19, is in custody. ATF has promised to send additional agents to help stem the toll.

UPDATE (1/20/17): Trump’s inaugural address echoed his former views about the inner cities:

“Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public. But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now. We are one nation – and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success.  We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.”

UPDATE (1/2/17): Trump tweets about Chicago’s “record-setting” murder rate and suggests that the city needs Federal help; Rahm Emanuel’s office replies they are “heartened” by the President-elect’s interest and “look forward to working with the new administration on these important efforts.”

UPDATE (12/31/16): Two more stories on point. From the New York Times, an in-depth look at the  city’s murder capital, the South Bronx. And in the Los Angeles Times, sobering news about the city’s third year of rising violence, much of it attributed to South L.A.

UPDATE (12/29/16): A heart-breaking article in the Los Angeles Times about something really “deplorable” - the successive deaths, by gunfire, of one member from each of three generations of an Oakland family.

UPDATE (12/26/16): Christmas weekend was no holiday in Chicago, where 53 persons were shot, eleven fatally.

UPDATE (12/25/16): In the New York Times, a sobering, in-depth account of how gang violence has turned inner-city Chicago upside down. And in the Los Angeles Times, a former South L.A. gang member describes the lethal struggle between the 83rd. Street Gangsters and the Hoover Crips.

UPDATE (12/21/16): A new analysis projects that 2016 crime rates in the 30 largest cities will remain essentially unchanged except for murder, which is expected to climb by 15 percent. That’s partly attributable to places like Chicago, where murder is up by 44 percent. Reasons for the surge include “falling police numbers, poverty and other forms of socioeconomic disadvantage, and gang violence.”

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Ideology Trumps Reason     Why Do Cops Succeed?     Is Crime Up or Down?     Getting Out of Dodge

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Posted 8/20/16

GETTING OUT OF DODGE

For families caught in dangerous neighborhoods, there is one option

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Milwaukee’s “Sherman Park” is one of the city’s oldest residential districts. Google it, plop down your pedestrian and amble down the lavishly tree-lined streets. Admire the finely crafted homes, built during the early 1900s by prosperous German immigrants. Most still stand, though in truth, some just barely. Really, things don’t seem as well kept as one might wish. There sure is an awful lot of chain link! It turns out that in an area less than two miles square, more than thirty homes are in foreclosure.

     But forget Sherman Park. Sadly, the years haven’t been kind to Milwaukee. Murder in 2015 soared to 152, a 69 percent increase from 2014 when 94 homicides were tallied. Blacks suffer disproportionately. In a city that is about forty percent black, seventy percent of murder victims in 2014 and eighty-four percent in 2015 were black. So far this year Milwaukee has recorded 76 murders. Seventy-six percent of the victims are black (13 percent were white, eight percent Hispanic and three percent of Asian descent.)

     Milwaukee’s residents have many explanations for the chaos engulfing their neighborhoods:

    Ask anyone in Milwaukee and they'll have a different answer: Deep systemic problems of poverty, unemployment, segregation and education. Easy access to firearms. Lack of personal responsibility and the breakdown of the family. An ineffective criminal justice system. Lax sentencing. A pursuit policy critics say too often limits police chases. Too much policing. Not enough policing.

Edward Flynn, Milwaukee’s somewhat controversial police chief, explained the uptick in violence more simply, as an increased willingness to settle differences with a bullet:

    Maintaining one’s status and credibility and honor, if you will, within that peer community is literally a matter of life and death. And that’s coupled with a very harsh reality, which is the mental calculation of those who live in that strata that it is more dangerous to get caught without their gun than to get caught with their gun.

     Over the decades, as Sherman Park transitioned from upper-middle class, exclusively-white, to working class, majority-black, crime and disorder has taken an increasing toll. Still, as Sherman Park is only one troubled place out of many, no one outside Milwaukee paid attention. That dramatically changed on Saturday, August 13, when a police officer patrolling in Sherman Park shot and killed an armed man who fled on foot from a traffic stop. Sylville Smith, 23, had prior arrests for drug possession, robbery, a shooting and witness intimidation. His only conviction, though, was for misdemeanor carrying a concealed weapon, and it seems that he later obtained a concealed-carry permit. (The gun he possessed when shot had been reported stolen.)

     Over the next two days, demonstrations and rioting rocked Sherman Park, and multiple businesses were looted and set on fire. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett issued an impassioned plea for harmony:

    We are asking every resident of this community to do everything they can to help us restore order. If you’re a mother who is watching this right now, and your young son or daughter is not home, and you think they’re in this area, get them home right now. This is a serious situation – and this is a neighborhood that has unfortunately been affected by violence in the past. There are a lot of really, really good people who live in this area, in the Sherman Park area, who can’t stand, like any of us, can’t stand this violence.

Sherman Park has an active community association. Two days after the shooting, a citizen posted this plea on their Facebook page. It was addressed to the local Alderman:

    …Long before this weekend, many of my neighbors were afraid of “that part” of Milwaukee. They miss out on great things like the Fondy Farmers Mkt because of the perception of danger. They won’t stop for gas or groceries on their way home because they are afraid. I am asking you to condemn the criminals. The youth in that neighborhood are killing each other. They are robbing each other. They are burning down businesses that serve a neighborhood that is served by too few…Please stop burying the condemnation under a pile of misguided justification, or sadly, the families in your neighborhood will continue to bury Milwaukee's youth….

     In this blog we’ve speculated plenty about the causes of crime and disorder. (Check out, for example, the “Crime and Punishment” topical area.) Most recently, in “Location, Location, Location,” we suggested that instead of obsessing about city crime rates, one ought to look to where the roots of violence actually lie, meaning neighborhoods. But this isn’t a post about the causes of crime, or how to fight it. It’s about equity. Lower-income areas of Milwaukee (and Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Newark…) can resemble the Wild West. Where does that leave law-abiding families who may be economically unable to leave?

     That was the core dilemma addressed during President Bill Clinton’s first term by an adventurous Federal experiment. Four-thousand-plus low-income families living in poverty-stricken areas of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York were enrolled in the “Moving to Opportunity” program (MTO). They were randomly assigned to one of three groups: an experimental group that received the usual, unrestricted “Section 8” housing vouchers; an experimental group that got vouchers restricted for use in areas where the poverty rate was ten percent or less; and a control group that received assistance but no voucher.

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     A study that compared effects on the voucher and control groups ten to fifteen years later paints a somewhat mixed picture. Forty-eight percent of the restricted group and sixty-three percent of the unrestricted Section 8 group actually used their vouchers. Their reasons seemed basically the same: to escape gangs and drugs and find better schools for their children. Families that used restricted vouchers ultimately wound up in areas where poverty hovered around twenty percent. That was twice the intended limit, but still about half the poverty rate of where the no-voucher controls lived, where poverty hovered around forty percent. Participants with unrestricted vouchers fell somewhere in-between. As one might expect, the lower-poverty areas were also somewhat less segregated (75 percent minority for the experimental groups versus 88 percent for the controls.) While statistically significant, the difference doesn’t seem all that compelling, leading one to wonder whether the subsidies were sufficiently large to create a pronounced effect.

     Issues of dosage aside, how much of a difference was there between the subsidized and control groups? In several key areas, none. Economic self-sufficiency, employment/unemployment, youth “risky behavior” and youth educational achievement came out about the same. On the other hand, families with vouchers apparently did benefit in other ways. Adults in the voucher groups liked their neighbors better, were far less likely to see drugs being sold or used, and felt much safer. That’s consistent with official data, which revealed that they faced substantially lower levels of violent crime than the controls. Measures of health, including body mass, diabetes and psychological state were significantly better for adults in the voucher groups. Their subjective well-being (SWB) scores, which reflect overall experiences, were also much higher.

     Still, the main reasons for using the vouchers had to do with kids, and their outcomes didn’t seem improved. (In fact, moving into “better” areas seemed to set boys back.) Two years after the official report, a team of Harvard researchers took another, more intensive look at the MTO’s effects on children. They discovered that age seemed crucial. Children in the subsidized “experimental” groups who relocated before age 13 enjoyed significantly higher incomes as adults than the unsubsidized controls. They were more likely to go to college, to a better college, and to live in better neighborhoods, and less likely to become single parents. Relocating, though, had negative consequences for older children.

     Baltimore’s participants in the MTO program got their own study, “Living Here has Changed My Whole Perspective: How Escaping Inner-City Poverty Shapes Neighborhood and Housing Choice” (Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Spring 2014.) According to its authors, relocating to better neighborhoods greatly raised families’ expectations about what schools and neighborhoods should provide.

         Unrestricted “Section 8” housing vouchers continue to be issued. However, funding is very limited. HUD’s fact sheet cautions that waiting lists may be long. What’s more, finances, work reasons, reluctance by landlords, a lack of preparedness, poor counseling and other factors can lead families who get vouchers to wind up living in areas that are far from desirable. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 343,000 children in Section 8 households resided in “extremely poor neighborhoods” in 2014. Changes, starting with far more robust funding, seem definitely called for.

     It’s been argued that the “toxic stress” of life in areas ridden by poverty and violence has grave effects on child development; even if families eventually relocate, improved life outcomes may be out of reach. What to do? With all due credit to the citizen-reformers who are hard at work in Sherman Park and like communities, their efforts won’t change the circumstances that kids who live in poverty faced yesterday, and will face again today and tomorrow. Your family, kind reader, and mine presumably live in “respectable” areas with good schools and minimal strife. Doing so, we know, requires a certain income. So it’s a matter of simple equity (not “charity”) to give children who would otherwise suffer the disadvantages of growing up in poverty the same opportunities we provide our own. While we wait (and wait, and wait) for improvements in police-community relations and such to yield their promised gains, helping families “Get out of Dodge” today – not tomorrow – seems a pressing imperative.

     Of course, some would say that encouraging “good people” to leave only accelerates decay. There’s truth in that, all right. So here’s a corrective. Ask the skeptics to trade places with impacted families in, say, Sherman Park. It’s the least they could do.

UPDATE (6/22/17): Jurors acquitted Officer Heaggan-Brown for killing Smith. He remains in custody awaiting trial on sex-crime charges.

UPDATE (6/13/17): Several weeks after killing Sylville Smith, Milwaukee police officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown was arrested for sex crimes and fired from the force. Then, on December 15, he was charged with reckless homicide for killing Smith, who had reportedly tossed away his gun before Heaggan-Brown fired the second, fatal round. Heaggan-Brown and Smith are both black.

UPDATE (6/9/17): In an impacted Chicago neighborhood two teens walked up to a man standing on the sidewalk, speaking with a woman and two children sitting in a car. They asked what gang he was in and he replied “I’m with my kids.” One teen then shot him dead.

UPDATE (5/31/17): Police raids and a massive law enforcement presence are credited with reducing violence in Chicago this Memorial day weekend. Compared to last year’s toll, when 64 where shot, seven fatally, shootings this time claimed five lives, with “at least” 46 shot. So far this year there have been 235 homicides, 4 percent fewer than in 2016, and shootings have declined 14 percent.

UPDATE (2/15/17): Three Chicago children ranging from 2 to 12 years of age fell to gunfire between February 11 and 14. So far one suspect, 19, is in custody. ATF has promised to send additional agents to help stem the toll.

UPDATE (12/26/16): Christmas weekend was no holiday in Chicago, with 53 persons shot, eleven fatally.

UPDATE (1/21/16): A new analysis projects that, excepting for murder, 2016 crime rates in the 30 largest cities will remain essentially unchanged. Driven by cities like Chicago, which is suffering a 44 percent increase, murders are expected to climb by nearly 15 percent. Reasons for the surge include “falling police numbers, poverty and other forms of socioeconomic disadvantage, and gang violence.”

UPDATE (11/30/16): As San Bernardino (CA), a working-class community of 216,000 reels from gun violence, with 60 murders so far this year, a mother mourns her 17-year old son and tries to figure out how to leave the dangerous but affordable neighborhood she and her surviving children call home.

UPDATE (8/20/16) Black families who can afford to leave poor areas often stay. Others leave to find less crime and disorder. But they may feel unwelcome and return. In Milwaukee the upshot is that 59 percent of black families earning $100,000 and more live in poor areas; for whites the equivalent proportion is six percent. (From the New York Times - see article below)

Your blogger’s comment: Higher-income blacks who remain in poor areas, or return to their old neighborhoods, are still higher-income. Their kids will benefit from better child care (meaning, closer supervision), better educational opportunities, better role models, and so on. Families we ought to worry about aren't the ones making $100,000 a year. For poor people, in poor areas, the challenges are enormous.

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New York Times: “Segregation, the Neighbor That Won’t Leave



Posted 5/26/16

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Crime happens. To find out why, look to where.

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel. A few weeks ago we blogged about Chicago’s ongoing struggle with violent crime. And it’s not just the Windy City that’s been having a lousy year. Data gathered from sixty-three police departments and sheriff’s offices by the Major Chiefs Association reveals that half (31) experienced more homicides in the first quarter of 2016 than during the equivalent period in 2015.     Some of the increases were substantial. Murders in Las Vegas went from 22 to 40, an 82 percent gain. Other winners (or, more properly, losers) include Dallas (26 to 45, +73 percent), Jacksonville (18 to 30, +67 percent), Newark (15 to 24, +60 percent), Memphis (31 to 48, +55 percent), Nashville (13 to 20, +54 percent), San Antonio (23 to 34, +48 percent), and Los Angeles (55 to 73, +33 percent).

     Still, the trophy properly belongs to Chicago. Although its increase wasn’t the greatest percentage-wise – the Windy City came in third, at +70 – it dwarfed its competitors in raw numbers, going from 83 homicides during 1Q 2015 to a stunning 141 for 1Q 2016. Overall, more folks are meeting a violent demise in the City of Broad Shoulders (509 in 2012; 422 in 2013; 427 in 2014; 465 in 2015) than anywhere else in the U.S. (We’ll spare readers Chicago’s other nicknames. Perhaps these sobering facts might suggest one that’s more – um – contemporary.)

     On the other hand, if we’re interested in murder rates Chicago is a distant contender. This graph  uses data from the Brennan Center, St. Louis police, U.S. census and the UCR to compare murders per 100,000 population for thirteen major cities since 2002. (Our focus is on murder because felonious assault data seems far less trustworthy. For more on this see “Cooking the Books” and “Liars Figure”.)

     And the winner (meaning, loser) is St. Louis! It earns the gold for 188 killings, which yielded a breath-taking rate of 59.6 murders per 100,000 population. Baltimore, at 55.2, got the silver and Detroit, at 43.8, the bronze. Chicago – its comparatively measly rate was 17.0 – only came in eighth.

     Yet the news wasn’t all bad. During 2002-2014 New York City’s murder rate fell from 7.3 to 3.9. (It ticked up a bit in 2015, ending at 4.2.) Los Angeles wasn’t too far behind. Although it started out far higher, at 17.1, by 2013 its rate had dropped to 6.5. Murder rates have rebounded in the last couple of years, but L.A.’s uptick was relatively marginal, to 6.7 in 2014 and 7.2 in 2015.

     So, New York is very safe, and Los Angeles isn’t far behind. Right?

     Not so fast. Each release of the Uniform Crime Reports is accompanied by a prominent warning against using crime statistics to rank jurisdictions. Here’s the most recent:

    Each year when Crime in the United States is published, many entities—news media, tourism agencies, and other groups with an interest in crime in our nation—use reported figures to compile rankings of cities and counties. These rankings, however, are merely a quick choice made by the data user; they provide no insight into the many variables that mold the crime in a particular town, city, county, state, region, or other jurisdiction.  Consequently, these rankings lead to simplistic and/or incomplete analyses that often create misleading perceptions adversely affecting cities and counties, along with their residents.

     “Simplistic” or not, once the stat’s come out there’s no holding back the media. In late 2015, only days after release of the UCR’s 2014 installment, the Detroit News prominently ranked the top ten murder cities, leaving any implications to the reader. Comparisons – essentially, rankings under another name – are commonplace. Two weeks ago, in an otherwise well-documented piece entitled “Homicide Rates Jump in Many Major U.S. Cities, New Data Shows,” the New York Times gloated that the Big Apple was nothing like Chicago:

    Still, more than 50 people were shot in Chicago last weekend, making it among the most violent weekends in months. At the other end of the spectrum was New York City, where homicides fell in the first three months of the year to 68 from 85 in the same period last year.

     Respectable police organizations also get in the game. True enough, the above-mentioned report published by the major cities police chiefs avoids direct comparisons by listing cities alphabetically and providing crime counts instead of rates. Except that the chiefs just couldn’t help themselves: jurisdictions where crime increased are highlighted in red.

     What gets lost in the discord about ranking is that cities are political constructs. Crime, on the other hand, is a social phenomenon, with its roots in neighborhoods. Commenting on the recent upswing in murder, Professor Richard Berk makes the point succinctly:

    Those homicides are not randomly distributed…Crime, like politics, is local. This stuff all occurs in neighborhoods on much more local levels.…It’s not about a city as a whole, it’s about neighborhoods.

     Alas, the professor’s enlightened comments were buried in an article that – you guessed it – was replete with rankings. Still, his concerns about place were echoed by Eddie Johnson, Chicago’s weary police commissioner, who attributed the increased violence to a coterie of well-known criminals who were running amok in certain parts of the city.

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     That’s what another top cop had to say about his burg a few days ago. Interviewed about Los Angeles’s recent rebound in homicide, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck hastened to point out that only 427 Angelinos have been shot so far in 2016, while 1,400 were plugged during this period in…Chicago! But his analysis of L.A.’s increase seems much the same:

    We took some extreme steps to address the four most violent divisions earlier in the year, and those steps are starting to have some effect. Although it's not over ‘til it’s over, obviously.

     Your blogger spent his teens in a middle-class neighborhood on Los Angeles’ west side. His only experience with violence was what he heard on the radio or saw on T.V. Of course, he and his friends steered clear of notoriously violent areas such as South L.A. Two decades later, when your blogger returned to L.A. as an ATF supervisor, he got to experience South L.A.’s crime problems first-hand. He’ll always remember that early morning when one of the fed-up local residents walked up and thanked him as agents led a notorious evil-doer away.

     What can we learn from neighborhoods? The Los Angeles Times has been mapping murders in the L.A. metropolitan area since 2000. This graph compares rates for neighborhoods in the incorporated areas of South Los Angeles during 2002-2015:

     During 2002-2005, the aggregate neighborhood murder rate (“Total South L.A.”) plunged 56 percent, from 46.2 to 20.2, while the rate for the City of Los Angeles fell 59 percent, from 17.8 to 7.3. L.A.’s starting rate was more than two points lower than South L.A.’s ending rate, and wound up being less than one-third South L.A.’s. Westwood, a trendy area where your blogger’s family occasionally shopped and dined, had zero murders in 2012 and one in 2015. Your blogger’s neighborhood, West Hollywood (2010 pop. 34,426), went from 2 murders in 2002 to one in 2015.

     Many L.A. neighborhoods have always been safe, others not so much. Although homicide seems to be on the decline, places such as Broadway-Manchester, Central-Alameda, Florence, Vermont Knolls, Vermont Slauson, and Vermont Square are stubbornly resisting the trend. Each is likely to have counterparts elsewhere, and for the same reasons. Say, Chicago.

     Cops and criminologists know that place matters. “Hot-spots” policing, the popular strategy that targets locations in need of special attention, is a computerized version of last century’s old-fashioned pin maps. Sociological interest in neighborhoods dates back to at least the “Chicago School.” And inquiries into place continue. In a compelling new study, researchers sampled census blocks in ten cities to investigate the effects of voluntary organizations on neighborhood crime rates. Their report appears in the current issue of Criminology.

     What’s important is to escape the trap of the usual suspect: poverty. Really, most poor people aren’t crooks. Geographically coding crimes and potentially enlightening variables – for example, the presence of violent cliques – might help explain why some disadvantaged neighborhoods fare worse than others. Unfortunately, that’s where movement lags. At present, thirty-tree states participate in the National Incident-Based Reporting System. A joint effort of the FBI and Bureau of Justice Statistics, it supplants the stodgy old UCR, which mostly aggregates numbers of offenses and arrests. Unfortunately, while the NIBRS captures information about place, crime locations are only coded by type (e.g., residence, bar, office building).

     To help agencies take the next step, the National Institute of Justice offers a comprehensive set of mapping and analytical tools. Some departments have been geocoding incidents, publishing maps and even making data available online (click here for Philadelphia PD’s version.) Geocoded crime data is also offered by private firms and public organizations (the L.A. Times “Homicide Report” was used for this piece.) And while its coverage is somewhat dated, the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data offers data that can be drilled down to ZIP codes, census tracts and block groups.

   Hopefully one day all crime will be geocoded. Until then, we should keep in mind that political subdivisions like Los Angeles and Chicago are mostly creatures of the imagination. Just like in real estate, it really is all about location.

UPDATE (6/9/17): In an impacted Chicago neighborhood two teens walked up to a man standing on the sidewalk, speaking with a woman and two children sitting in a car. They asked what gang he was in and he replied “I’m with my kids.” One teen then shot him dead.

UPDATE (5/31/17): Police raids and a massive law enforcement presence are credited with reducing violence in Chicago this Memorial day weekend. Compared to last year’s toll, when 64 where shot, seven fatally, shootings this time claimed five lives, with “at least” 46 shot. So far this year there have been 235 homicides, 4 percent fewer than in 2016, and shootings have declined 14 percent.

UPDATE (5/28/17): For the third year in a row, Chicago’s population shrank. It’s the only major city where that’s happened. Why? is complicated, but here’s what one expat whose home was “robbed twice” had to say: “It's not just limited to poor neighborhoods. Trouble could strike anywhere.”

UPDATE (12/26/16): Christmas weekend was no holiday in Chicago, with 53 persons shot, eleven fatally.

UPDATE (1/21/16): A new analysis projects that, excepting for murder, 2016 crime rates in the 30 largest cities will remain essentially unchanged. Driven by cities like Chicago, which is suffering a 44 percent increase, murders are expected to climb by nearly 15 percent. Reasons for the surge include “falling police numbers, poverty and other forms of socioeconomic disadvantage, and gang violence.”

UPDATE (6/5/16): Sixty-four persons were shot in Chicago during Memorial Day weekend. Six died. “It is a level of violence that has become the terrifying norm, particularly in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods on the South and West Sides,” reports the New York Times. For their gripping account, click here.

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