SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Improvements in emergency care over the last 40 years have helped to dramatically lower the death rate among assault victims by nearly 70%, and in the process decrease the nation's murder rate, according to a study.
"People who would have ended up in morgues 20 years ago are now simply treated and released by a hospital, often in a matter of a few days," said Anthony R. Harris, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Harris headed the statistical study in connection with Harvard Medical School that looked at crime data from 1960 to 1999.
The study was published in Homicide Studies, an international, interdisciplinary journal devoted to the study of homicide.
Deaths from criminal assaults dropped almost 70% over the 40 years studied, with annual declines of 2.5% for firearm and knife assaults and 3.5% to 4% for other assaults, including poisoning and arson, the researchers found.
In 1960, police nationwide recorded 9,110 homicides and 154,320 aggravated assaults. That translates into 5.1 homicides per 100,000 people and 86.1 assaults per 100,000 population.
Researchers found 5.6% of those assaults resulted in death.
In contrast, police in 1999 recorded 15,522 homicides, a rate of 5.7 per 100,000, and 911,740 aggravated assaults, a rate of 334.3 per 100,000 people.
But only 1.67% of the 1999 assaults resulted in death.
The researchers noted that there was an uptick in deaths from assaults in 2000 and 2001, and they said they were studying it.
Their study of the 40-year period credited a variety of medical advancements in the improved death rate: the development of 911 emergency services, rapid stabilization and transportation of trauma victims, better training for emergency medical technicians and increased numbers of hospitals and trauma centers, particularly in rural areas.
Using statistical analysis, the researchers figured that, without medical advances, 45,000 to 70,000 homicides would have been recorded annually nationwide.
The changes have not gone unnoticed.
"The ambulance service and trauma facilities in this city have improved tremendously over the years," said Det. Lt. William Noonan, a 26-year police veteran who heads Springfield's homicide division.
The results are consistent with common sense, said Dr. Stephen R. Thomas of Harvard Medical School, a specialist in emergency medicine who worked on the study. Advances in trauma care since the Vietnam War have boosted survival rates for a wide array of injuries, he said.
Harris said the study's findings could raise additional questions about the use of murder rates in analyzing crime statistics.