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A Brooklyn anti-violence activist stands next to a street memorial for a shooting victim. [Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/ Corbis via Getty Images]

Urban Violence

Is America Experiencing a Murder Outbreak? It Depends On Your Block.

Citywide homicide rates obscure the vastly unequal safety risks that separate neighborhoods.

Last month, while I was reporting a story in Milwaukee, a woman whose son was fatally shot 14 years ago offered to give me a tour of her city. Debra Jenkins and I set off in her car for downtown, where she enthusiastically pointed out her favorite old theater, the well-lit library of Marquette University, and crowds flocking to the annual Christmas tree lighting. Next, she drove north to the 53206 zip code, where her pride shifted to fear and anger. Jenkins seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the neighborhood’s murders. Every few blocks, she would ease on the brakes and point out the car window to a patch of pavement or grass where someone had died.

The spike in America’s homicide rate after a sustained decline spurred alarming headlines and ominous campaign talking points this year after FBI data for 2015 released in September reported the greatest percentage increase in murder in 45 years. Official data for 2016 won’t be available for months, but one analysis suggests that violent deaths continue to trend upward. A report released on December 20 by the Brennan Center, a left-leaning public policy institute, found that in the country’s 30 largest cities homicides are on track to increase by 14 percent.

Milwaukee, a city of about 600,000 people, is not large enough to have been included in the Brennan report, but it posts big murder numbers. In 2015, the city recorded 145 homicides, roughly 24 per every 100,000 residents. That’s a higher rate than Chicago, Philadelphia, or Houston. Data collected by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel shows the homicide rate in Milwaukee holding steady this year, placing Milwaukee squarely within America’s homicide outbreak.

But a growing number of scholars suggests that the conversation about national and metro crime rates ignores a crucial metric: the lived experience of urban violence. The risk of being shot is not equal in all parts of a city, but rather clusters most heavily in a handful of blocks. For residents, the differences in relative danger can be stark. The 53206 zip code that Debra Jenkins drove me around, for instance, falls in Milwaukee’s 5th Police District, where the homicide rate is nearly double the city’s average — and 20 times higher than in the city’s safest district.

“It’s meaningless to say what the citywide homicide rate is, or violent crime rate is, because it turns out not very many people experience that average rate,” Daniel Kay Hertz, a public policy analyst in Chicago, says of his city. “In some neighborhoods, any kind of gun crime is shocking and out of the ordinary. And other places, it’s just off the charts.”

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Hertz introduced The Trace to the phenomenon of “murder inequality” in an article he wrote for the website over the summer, using data and maps to show that homicide, like wealth, education, and incarceration, is not evenly distributed among neighborhoods and groups of people. For journalists, policymakers, and law enforcement officials hoping to better understand crime and illuminate possible solutions for reducing it, murder inequality offers a clear picture which areas are most in need of attention.

Looking at gun violence as it relates to specific neighborhoods shows vivid disparities. New York, for instance, is regularly lauded as one of the safest major cities in the country, after a dramatic decline in crime since the 1990s. But a closer look at the city’s neighborhoods shows that there remain stubborn pockets of violence. In the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the homicide rate was just shy of 29 per 100,000 residents through October of this year. That’s more than 10 percentage points higher than the citywide rate that earned Chicago its dubious reputation as “Chiraq,” and nearly 20 times higher than that of Park Slope, an affluent Brooklyn neighborhood just a few miles from Brownsville.

By the same token, within cities commonly regarded as “murder capitals,”  many neighborhoods actually report relatively low violent crime — even as others suffer homicides rates that dramatically surpass the citywide average.

Consider St. Louis, which recorded the nation’s highest murder rate per capita in 2015. In the Shaw neighborhood, there has been just one homicide in all of 2016. But for a person living in the Greater Ville neighborhood, the risk of being murdered is five times higher than the city’s highest-in-the-nation rate. Put another way: according to police data, 42 percent of St. Louis’s murders this year have been confined to just eight of the city’s 79 residential neighborhoods.

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Last year, Baltimore recorded 344 homicides, its deadliest year on record, per capita. So far in 2016, the city has had 311 homicides. The slight reduction would suggest Baltimore is having a better year — but it is still running 100 homicides ahead of its total for 2014. Such fluctuations are why criminologists caution against reading too much into single-year changes in homicide rates. They also underscore why comparing neighborhood to neighborhood, rather than just calendar period to calendar period, provides an important yardstick for measuring a city’s performance in keeping its residents safe. As long as parts of Baltimore like its Eastern and Western districts have high homicide rates, a reduction in the overall metro homicide rate represents only partial progress.

Any discussion of rising violence in 2016 eventually turns to Chicago, where homicides have more than doubled after an already horrendous 2015. The city has experienced so many killings this year — 768 according to the Chicago Tribune — that, by itself, it accounts for nearly half the projected overall homicide increase for the nation’s biggest cities, the Brennan Center found. The picture is even grimmer when it includes nonfatal shootings. In all, more than 4,300 people have been shot overall in Chicago in 2016, with more than 3,500 of those wounded but not killed, according to the Tribune.

But in Chicago, too, the data show that a handful of police districts see a disproportionate share of the killings. The New York Times’ Monica Davey chronicled shootings at specific intersections in Chicago’s 11th police district, where about 74,000 people live. There have been 91 homicides in the district so far this year.

“That is more homicides than in all of last year in entire cities, such as Seattle (population 684,000), Omaha (444,000) and Buffalo (258,000),” Davey wrote.

There can be downsides to examining a city’s murders by their geographic disparity, however. Focusing only on the violence plaguing the hardest-hit neighborhoods can compound the economic stigmas those neighborhoods face. It can also reinforce divisions, giving some people living in the safer parts of a city a pass to ignore or distance themselves from those in the more dangerous areas of town.

At a gathering of civic leaders in early December, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson took pains to stress that the violence his officers are confronting isn’t engulfing Chicago as a whole, but rather “certain parts of the city.”

Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke took issue with Johnson’s language.

“We can’t keep talking about problems in ‘those neighborhoods,’” he wrote. “We can’t keep partitioning ourselves from the ‘parts of Chicago’ where bad things happen. We need to accept that if parts of Chicago are so out of control that men, women and children are being slaughtered daily, then ALL of Chicago is out of control.”

If the shared commitment that Huppke calls for is the foundation, then murder inequality can provide a blueprint for designing smart and just solutions. The areas shaded the deepest reds on crime maps are beacons for reporters, public health researchers, and law enforcement interventions driven by scientific evidence. Sending foot patrol officers into specific “hot-spots” is among the most promising policing strategies on the books. In one experiment in Philadelphia, the approach lead to a short-term 23 percent drop in violent crime reports at high-crime intersections and blocks where it was deployed.

“If you’re going to intervene and try to reduce gun violence, there is a very important piece of that intervention that has to be done at the local level,” according to Richard Berk, a professor of statistics and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. “And sure, there are things that you can do upstream, with respect to the availability of firearms, and the way in which you allocate your police. But if you don’t take into account where people live, and the inequality in homicide, you’re going to miss it. You’re going to misallocate your resources.”

Graphics and additional reporting by Francesca Mirabile.