What’s Behind DC’s Declining Homicide Rate?

by Borderstan.com January 26, 2012 at 8:00 am 1,534 6 Comments

MPD Chief Cathy Lanier, U Street NW

MPD Chief Cathy Lanier addresses the media after the September 28, 2010, murder of Jamal Coates at 11th and U Streets NW. (Luis Gomez Photos)

From Cody Telep. Telep is working on his PhD in criminology at George Mason University and lives in the U Street area. Follow him on Twitter @codywt, email him at [email protected].

Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Cathy Lanier has recently been touting D.C.’s 2011 homicide decline, pointing to a number of police initiatives that she believes are at least partially responsible. The number of homicides dropped from 132 in 2010 to 108 in 2011, the lowest number since 1963.

Over the past 20 years the number of homicides has dropped more than 75% after peaking at 479 in 1991. This homicide decline is not unique to D.C., but the magnitude of the drop is impressive, even compared to national numbers. From 1991 to 2010, homicides nationally decreased about 40%.

Lanier’s discussion of homicide clearance rates (i.e. the percentage of homicides solved by an arrest), while technically correct, is a bit misleading. An MPD press release refers to a 94% homicide clearance rate in 2011. As Homicide Watch points out, any homicide cleared by arrest last year is included in the clearance rate, even if the homicide occurred in 2010 or earlier.

While acceptable under FBI Uniform Crime Report stipulations for crime data reporting, this creates a distorted picture of how quickly MPD has actually been solving homicides. When examining just 2011 murders, about 57% were closed by arrest last year, suggesting that MPD hasn’t yet solved a substantial proportion of 2011 homicides.

What has MPD been doing that might be contributing to the decline in homicide (and violent crime more generally) across D.C. in 2011? Chief Lanier points to better collaboration with the community, enhanced information sharing, and greater use of technology.

Close collaboration with the community is essential for a police department to be successful in addressing crime. Chief Lanier has stressed the importance of officers building positive relationships with residents. Recent research suggests that when the police act fairly in interactions with the public, citizens are much more likely to view the police positively. When citizens have a more positive view of the police, they are more likely to cooperate with them and follow the law.

As Chief Lanier points out, information sharing in police departments isn’t always common. Cops on patrol, for example, may not have the opportunity to share all the information they know about their beat with investigative or gang units. Opening up channels for better information sharing can improve a department’s ability to solve cases more quickly and also prevent future crime.

The police point to improved technology as also important for their efforts to address crime, but some research indicates they should be cautious in relying too heavily on technology. In a recent Washington Times article, for example, Chief Lanier pointed to MPD’s investment in license plate readers as one technological advance that is contributing to crime declines. These readers scan license plates to identify stolen vehicles. The limited evaluation research conducted so far, however, suggests the devices do little to reduce crime. Still, technology can be an important tool in efforts to reach out to the community and to improve information sharing within the department.

Overall, the efforts of MPD and Chief Lanier to reduce violence and homicide in D.C. seem to be paying off. The police find themselves in a tough position because they take the bulk of the blame when crime increases, but they are often accused of taking too much credit when crime declines. In this instance, the police certainly deserve some of the credit for some of the reasons noted above.

Could this be the year that D.C. will tally fewer than 100 homicides? It seems very possible. Through January 25, the city has recorded only seven homicides, down from nine in the same time period in 2011.

  • So, if Chief Lanier’s police policies have contributed to the decline in homicides, and are effective at reducing violent crime — why are robberies (a crime of violence) not decreasing?
    2005: 3898
    2006: 3723
    2007: 4165
    2008: 4184
    2009: 4211
    2010: 3985
    2011: 4056

    If MPD policies were effective at reducing violent crime, then robberies in DC ought to be decreasing. But they’re not. So, the decrease in homicides here may be simply the local manifestation of the nationwide trend (which research attributes to the decrease in environmental lead, not to improved police policies).

    • Cody

      Good point about robberies, where the trend has been showing some greater fluctuation in recent years (although robberies were down slightly in the Borderstan neighborhoods in 2011). One possibility here is that the robbery trends are being driven by people increasingly carrying around expensive phones or other electronics. I think that’s what is driving increased rates of theft from auto as well. Robbery is definitely a violent crime, but it shares a lot in common with property crimes.

      I definitely think the homicide drop in D.C. can be attributed partially to national level factors, although the decline in D.C. has been greater than the national average. I would disagree that research attributes the decline at the national level to decreases in lead and not police practices. That’s one theory (just as abortion mentioned above is another), but I think there’s fairly convincing evidence that the police are driving at least part of the decline (see for example, Frank Zimring’s new book on the New York crime drop mentioned in the New Yorker last week- http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2012/01/30/120130crat_atlarge_gopnik?)

  • M

    Uhm, Cheif Lanier, you missed the obvious reason for the drop. One that everyone is Borderstan knows well. It’s called GENTRIFICATION.

  • Hal9000

    There is a theory that falling crime rates are linked to the legalization of abortion in 1973. It is one of the segments in the movie “Freakonomics” and is discussed any number of places on the web. The gist of the argument is that children who are unwanted are more likely to grow up in adverse conditions, such as having divorced parents or being raised in foster homes, and were more likely to engage in criminal activity. It is a controversial theory, but certainly plausible.

    • Good point on the potential link between legalized abortion and the crime decline- coming from criminology, I’d say there’s overall a lot of skepticism that abortions are really driving much of the decline, but it’s certainly a plausible explanation, particularly in an area like D.C., which has typically seen abortion rates higher than the national average.


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