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Why we shouldn’t fixate on homicide numbers

There are some certainties in life. Death, taxes, the Eagles snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. And the annual January media fixation with homicide rates as the barometer of everything from a city’s moral compass to the effectiveness of the police chief.

I spent a couple of days speaking to various reporters about the homicide numbers in Philadelphia, and how they were significantly down on a few years ago, but had remained largely unchanged since last year. ‘What could we gather from this?’ ‘What were the implications?’ ‘Were police department strategies starting to falter?’ ‘What does it mean for the mayor and police commissioner?’

Taking more time than I really had, given I am trying to update ‘Intelligence-Led Policing’ for a second edition, I tried to explain that the homicide figures are a really bad choice of metric. For just about anything. For example, a not insubstantial number of homicides occur between people who know each other, and often take place indoors. How are the police department supposed to anticipate and prevent those homicides? Even if they develop a ‘Minority Report’ predictive capacity, we have a reactive legal and criminal justice system: it isn’t keen on letting the police just wander into your house and lock you up for pondering murder. And for the homicides that take place on the street? Sitting in on numerous Philadelphia Police Department crime briefings and listening to the homicide reports, it is clear that many are the result of minor disputes that flared up with little-to-no warning or are the result of disputes between participants in gangs or drug organizations who conceal their business and would never seek the intervention of the police.

The difference between a homicide and an aggravated assault is also largely outside of police control. Could be the shooter has lousy aim or is firing gangster style, there is a delay in getting the victim to the hospital, or simply medical mismanagement. Once a person decides to shoot someone else, they are easily able to in the US because we allow them the opportunities to do so. Our legislators seem unwilling to help the police with this, so again, little chance for police influence here.

I examined a summary of every incident recorded by the Philadelphia Police for the last available full year (2013) to estimate how much police patrol energy is expended on responding to homicide incidents. In Philadelphia, the city receives millions of calls for service, and from these – as well as police-generated activity – an INCT database is created. This database contains every incident where a police officer was required to act, and ranges from dog bites and graffiti to shootings and homicides, and from assistance to city agencies and delivering messages, to removing debris from the interstate or arresting a drunk driver. In 2013 there were in excess of 1.65 million incidents. What percentage of these related to homicide? 0.021%. Less than one quarter of one tenth of one percent.

I explained to the reporters that aggravated assaults and robberies were also down, and due to their greater number generally, this was a much better way to indicate the crime health of the city. They said they got it, but their hands were tied: “the public interest is in homicides”.  So we still got story after story about the homicide rate. Not a major grumble: reporters have to make a call and write what they think is the story. But I wonder if the fascination with homicides is really driven by public demand, or by the media? I can’t believe there was massive public outcry that drove the claim that “Philly’s Murder Rate Is Skyrocketing Again in 2014”… especially only two weeks into the year (you had to go back and checked the post date didn’t you?).

Traditionally, homicides have been used because they are easily comparable between cities, because police departments have recorded other incidents in different ways, or because in the past (sometimes not so distant) the police have distorted the crime figures. But homicides comprise so little of the work of a police agency, and the chances of most people being a victim of homicide are so low, that they tell us little about the experienced crime rate or the quality of life for city residents.

We need to start moving to more holistic measures if oversight and strategy are to be more data driven and evidence based. Harm-focused policing that examines and weighs all incidents, and includes other harms to communities, such as traffic accidents or the potentially deleterious impact of unrestrained pedestrian investigations, is increasingly possible with the big data sets that public agencies generate. We need to evolve beyond our fixation with homicide if we are to move the discussion about safety and harm forward.

But in the meantime, Philadelphia, be glad that shootings and robberies are also down.

(This post was updated shortly after posting to correct the homicide incident rate)