What’s Behind DC’s Declining Homicide Rate?

by Borderstan.com January 26, 2012 at 8:00 am 1,854 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.

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