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Monday, January 5, 2015

About Detroit's falling homicide totals

Posted By on Mon, Jan 5, 2015 at 9:56 AM

Hey, it's great to hear that the total amount of homicides in Detroit is at its lowest since the late 1960s, right around back when "Detroit" became synonymous with murder and violence. But before we all start patting ourselves on the back, let's remember that we're talking about a city that is less than half the size, population-wise, as 1970. 

In other words, today, the city has twice as many murders per capita as in the late 1960s. In fact, according to crime statistics released by the FBI in November, Detroit remains the most violent big city in the United States for murder and violent crime.

Of course, you could be forgiven for forgetting this 60-day-old news when the headlines pronounce news that is misleadingly good, such as "Detroit saw fewer homicides in 2014," "Detroit less violent in 2014, police data show," "Murders drop in Detroit to lowest total since 1967," or "2014 Detroit homicides fewest in nearly 5 decades: police." Other headlines included "Detroit's 2014 homicide count on pace to be lowest since 1967 riots" and "2014 Detroit homicides fewest in 47 years."

What really matters, of course, is the rate per capita — that is to say, the likelihood of being capped. That rate remains one of the top, if not the very top, in the nation. Or, as a doctor acquaintance on the east side just told me, "Considering that I personally have pronounced three people dead of gunshot wounds in less than a week, I'm just not feeling it."

So why all the celebratory headlines? We could be charitable and say that our local media are being overzealous, perhaps a bit too ready to celebrate Detroit's comeback. Also, journalists are lazy, and newspapers are busy places where press releases from the police department can be all but cut-and-pasted into the daily edition.

What really bugs us is that the news about the drop in murders isn't the good news it appears to be. It's a story of continuity. The only reason the total number of murders has fallen so low is that large sections of the city remain terrible places to live, places we, as a region and as a state, have essentially given up on. The people in these neighborhoods know this and increasingly leave. Many others who'd like to remain and experience the eventual turnaround we're all hoping for have been foreclosed out of their neighborhood, while others await county actions due to tax problems. The economic life of these neighborhoods is screaming, and that's what's driving people away, and, as a side benefit, providing those lower death counts for the media to promote.

The real headline should be: Detroit, America's most violent big city, continues to shrink.

But that isn't really news, is it?


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