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The Puzzle of Murder Statistics: A Search for Cause and Effect

September 03, 2000|Eric H. Monkkonen | Eric H. Monkkonen, a professor of history and policy studies at UCLA, is the author of "Murder in New York City," a historical analysis, due out in December

Bad news for Los Angeles: After a nine-year decrease, murder rates have started to rise. Last year, the decline slowed, with only four fewer murders than in 1998. The current increase in Los Angeles is about 60 more victims than at this time last year. If the year ends up with an increase of 100, that's far bigger than a blip. And we are not alone: The news is also bad in Orange County, New Orleans, Boston and even London.

However, not every place is suffering. The mixed picture from city to city, and the overall dramatically lower rates in Los Angeles and elsewhere, frustrate simple explanations and solutions. Back in June, for example, it looked bad for New York. But now things are better there, and better also in Chicago and San Francisco. All three cities could well have lower homicide rates than last year.

Reasons for the scattered increases are not yet fully developed. Some experts suggest that young men, especially those in gangs, have forgotten lessons learned by the young a decade ago, when they saw their neighborhoods destroyed as rates went to all-time highs, and so today's youth are again becoming more violent. Others suggest that police scandals--Rampart in Los Angeles and several in New York--have caused cops to back off aggressive tactics, which, in turn, has emboldened criminals. But it could well be that long-term attitudes, part of the nation's traditional makeup, contribute to the increase.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Department and other police departments are vowing to fix things, but they are not disclosing their methods. The reasons they give for today's increase in murder rates differ starkly from those of a decade ago. No one is claiming big insights this time. In the late 1980s and early '90s, the most common reasons cited for the sharp rise were an abundance of high-powered guns, the coming of age of a generation of vicious young "super predators," intractable unemployment, not enough imprisonment and drug use, especially crack.

We can hope current upturns in Los Angeles and New Orleans are only brief reversals in a longer decline. There is historical precedent for this. If we focus on the broader trends, previous declines were quite long, for example, in New York, from 1930 to 1952, and in Los Angeles, from 1932 to 1953. But there were slight increases during these periods, in New York, in 1939, and in Los Angeles, in 1937.

Both cities, and the nation as a whole, took a turn for the worse in the late 1950s. While the baby-boom generation has often been blamed for this increase, it actually only accounts for a small part. People, especially young men, just started murdering more. No one has ever offered a definitive reason why.

What can we say is feeding this current, scattered rise in the murder rate?

For one thing, it could have nothing to do with the actual crime rate. An intricate web of factors contributes to homicide statistics, everything from funding for more high-quality trauma rooms to counseling programs for angry husbands to after-school athletic programs.

Other factors are related: Gun availability probably makes a huge difference, but shifts in availability and the likelihood of gun carrying surely swing over long periods of time, not over half-year spans. The current 23% increase in the number of homicides in Los Angeles can hardly be due to more guns.

What about invisible changes in unemployment? Here, the possibility is that unobservable microchanges can make a major difference. It's not the unemployment rate itself, but who is unemployed and what they do while unemployed. Maybe a small increase in unemployment among the kinds of people who kill has occurred in the past year. But how would we discover this?

Since increased harshness of prison terms was also given credit for the 1990s overall decline in violence, what do we say now? Imprisonment hasn't eased. Is it a failure? Or would rates be really high were it not for the increased imprisonment?

If we could figure out all the relevant circumstances of the 326 murders in Los Angeles so far this year, could we find the reasons why this is going on. In principle, yes; in practice, unlikely.

A key point is that America still lacks the clear, non-ideological and probably complicated set of policies to get rates down to those similar to the rest of the Western world. Homicide has never been a serious social issue in the U.S. compared with its actual impact. Why do we think the police alone can and should deal with a problem so much larger than one of law enforcement? We have a 200-year tradition of tolerating violence. London homicides may be up, but the rates--the level per capita--are baby stuff for Americans.

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