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Created: February 12, 2006
Latest Update: February 12, 2006
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/12/national/12homicide.html. Original URL, consulted: February 12, 2006.
February 12, 2006
Violent Crime Rising Sharply in Some Cities
By KATE ZERNIKE
MILWAUKEE — One woman here killed a friend after they argued over a brown silk dress. A man killed a neighbor whose 10-year-old son had mistakenly used his dish soap. Two men argued over a cellphone, and pulling out their guns, the police say, killed a 13-year-old girl in the crossfire.
While violent crime has been at historic lows nationwide and in cities like New York, Miami and Los Angeles, it is rising sharply here and in many other places across the country.
And while such crime in the 1990's was characterized by battles over gangs and drug turf, the police say the current rise in homicides has been set off by something more bewildering: petty disputes that hardly seem the stuff of fistfights, much less gunfire or stabbings.
Suspects tell the police they killed someone who "disrespected" them or a family member, or someone who was "mean mugging" them, which the police loosely translate as giving a dirty look. And more weapons are on the streets, giving people a way to act on their anger.
Police Chief Nannette H. Hegerty of Milwaukee calls it "the rage thing."
"We're seeing a very angry population, and they don't go to fists anymore, they go right to guns," she said. "A police department can have an effect on drugs or gangs. But two people arguing in a home, how does the police department go in and stop that?"
Here in Milwaukee, where homicides jumped from 88 in 2004 to 122 last year, the number classified as arguments rose to 45 from 17, making up by far the largest category of killings, as gang and drug murders declined.
In Houston, where homicides rose 24 percent last year, disputes were by far the largest category, 113 out of 336 killings. Officials were alarmed by the increase in murders well before Hurricane Katrina swelled the city's population by 150,000 people in September; the police say 18 homicides were related to evacuees.
In Philadelphia, where 380 homicides made 2005 the deadliest year since 1997, 208 were disputes; drug-related killings, which accounted for about 40 percent of homicides during the high-crime period of the early 1990's, accounted for just 13 percent.
"When we ask, 'Why did you shoot this guy?' it's, 'He bumped into me,' 'He looked at my girl the wrong way,' " said Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson of Philadelphia. "It's not like they're riding around doing drive-by shootings. It's arguments — stupid arguments over stupid things."
The police say the suspects and the victims tend to be black, young — midteens to mid-20's — and have previous criminal records. They tend to know each other. Several cities said that domestic violence had also risen. And the murders tend to be limited to particular neighborhoods. Downtown Milwaukee has not had a homicide in about five years, but in largely black neighborhoods on the north side, murders rose from 57 in 2004 to 94 last year.
"We're not talking about a city, we're talking about this subpopulation, that's what drives everything," said David M. Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "When they calm down, all the numbers go down. When they heat up, all the numbers go up. They hurt each other over personal stuff. It's respect and disrespect, and it's girls."
While arguments have always made up a large number of homicides, the police say the trigger point now comes faster.
"Traditionally, you could see the beef growing and maybe hitting the volatile point," said Daniel Coleman, the commander of the homicide unit in Boston. "Now we see these things, they're flashes, they're very unpredictable. Even five years ago, in what started as a fight or dispute, maybe you'd have a knife shown. Now it's an automatic default to a firearm."
"In robberies, Milwaukee's Chief Hegerty said, "even after the person gives up, the guy with the gun shoots him anyway. We didn't have as much of that before."
Homicide rates are driven by different factors in each city, but even cities whose rates have fallen have seen problems with disputes, though those disputes are often about drugs or gangs. "As the murder universe continues to shrink in New York, the common denominators remain consistent," said Police Department Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne. "In most instances, killers and victims knew each other, each had criminal records, and they were engaged in disputes, usually over narcotics."
Nationally, the homicide rate peaked in 1991, declined steadily after 1993 and has remained essentially flat since 1999. But in the first six months of 2005, according to preliminary statistics from the F.B.I., the number of homicides nationwide rose 2.1 percent, with the greatest increase, 4.9 percent, in the Midwest.
Yet many cities have seen far steeper increases. In Boston and San Francisco the number of homicides last year was at its highest in a decade, and in Prince George's County, Md., outside Washington, it was the highest ever.
In St. Louis, the number of homicides rose to 131 last year from 113 in 2004. Tulsa had 64 murders, 2 more than in 1993. Charlotte jumped from a record low of 60 homicides in 2004 to 85 in 2005. And the murder rate for 2005 was above the 15-year average in Kansas City, Mo., and Nashville.
A large part of the problem, the police say, is simply more guns on the streets as gun laws have loosened around the country. In Philadelphia, Commissioner Johnson said, since the state made it easier to get a gun permit in 1985, the number of people authorized to carry a gun in the city has risen from 700 to 32,000.
But the police also blame lax sentences and judges who they say let suspects out on bail too easily. Here, Deputy Chief Brian O'Keefe recalled a man who was released from prison on an armed robbery conviction after two years, with five years' probation, and killed someone within three months. In Nashville, Chief Ronal W. Serpas recalled an 18-year-old who had been arrested 41 times but was out on bail when he killed a bystander in a fight over a dice game.
"We have people who've done two, three, four, five shootings who are back on the streets," said Kathleen M. O'Toole, Boston's police commissioner. "Unless we have bail reform, unless these impact players with multiple gun arrests are kept off the streets, we won't reverse this problem."
Still, some of the problems are hard to address with tougher laws.
The neighborhoods with the most murders tend to be the poorest. In Milwaukee, Mallory O'Brien, an epidemiologist brought in to direct the new homicide review commission, said suspects and victims tend to have been born to teenage mothers. The city has one of the nation's highest teen pregnancy rates for blacks, and among black men, one of the lowest high school graduation rates. An industrial base that used to provide jobs for those without a high school diploma has shrunk.
Chief Corwin of Kansas City said that in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, people had explained it as a "lack of hope." "If I don't have skills, I don't have training, my socioeconomic situation looks desperate, do I really have hope?" he said. "I think that ties into the anger. If the only thing I have is my respect, that's what I carry on the street. If someone disrespects me, they've done the ultimate to me."
Those who study crime debate whether the cities where homicide is rising represent a trend.
"It's a couple of cities with bad luck and with local problems which are very real, but not necessarily part of a national pattern," said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at Berkeley who is writing a book on the crime drop of the late 1990's.
But Mr. Kennedy, at John Jay, said the decrease in homicides in big cities has obscured the problem in many other places.
"In many places — both cities and increasingly suburban and rural settings — things never got as good as they did nationally," he said. "Even if things got better, they didn't get as better as they did in Los Angeles or New York. In many places, they're getting worse."
Certainly, the number of homicides is lower than its peak in the early 90's — Milwaukee had 168 killings, not including Jeffrey Dahmer's serial murders, in 1991. But the number is far higher than in recent years, and alarming to a public that has gotten used to good news. Boston, which peaked with 151 murders in 1990, had declined to 31 in 1999. Nashville in 2004 had its lowest homicide rate in the history of city government, with 58 murders, before jumping to 99 last year.
"Because for this decade the sense is that crime is down, it's very hard to speak out about it and not look as though you're doing something wrong," said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a research and public policy group in Washington. "People's expectation of crime has significantly changed."
In some of the cities, overall crime has declined, thanks to a significant drop in property crimes. But the rise in homicides and robberies causes alarm.
"It's hard for people to look at it in depth and understand that they're not likely to be a victim if they get along with their family members and neighbors and don't live a high-risk lifestyle," said Darrel Stephens, the police chief in Charlotte.
Cities say they are going after illegal guns and are trying to stop disputes from becoming homicides. Kansas City used to investigate only some aggravated assaults; now it follows up on all cases, on the theory that next time, the assault might be a homicide. Boston and Philadelphia are sweeping neighborhoods for people who have violated warrants. In St. Louis, the police have put cameras in high-crime neighborhoods and have sent gang units to talk to parents of chronically truant students.
But recognizing that the problems have deep roots, cities are also going beyond traditional law enforcement, trying to involve churches, schools and social service agencies. In Boston, the neighborhood sweeps are followed by work crews that repair potholes, trim trees and remove graffiti.
Here in Milwaukee, the police are tagging "M.V.P.'s," or major violent players — people with several arrests, who are more likely to be involved in arguments and homicides, according to Ms. O'Brien's analysis. Those names are announced at daily police briefings.
The city has also put prosecutors and probation and parole officers on patrol with police officers, because they have more immediate power to rein in chronic offenders by enforcing curfew, nuisance laws, and restrictions against alcohol or drug use and association with gang members.
The homicide review commission has frequent, formal meetings with corrections officers, prosecutors and social service agencies to identify problem families, and is meeting with schools to assess what they are teaching about conflict resolution and how to reduce truancy.
Next month, police officials say, they will have the first of several town hall meetings with the neighborhoods with the highest homicide rates, to get residents' ideas on how to stop the killings.
"We didn't get here in a day," said Ms. O'Brien, the epidemiologist. "There's no simple solution."
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company