Social scientists are able to calculate the expected number of
homicides for a city based on certain social and economic factors.
Hoping to refine conventional crime statistics, this study examines
homicide rates that are in excess of the expected rate.
Using that method, researchers found that Los Angeles ranks lower in
homicides than many other cities -- including smaller, wealthier ones,
particularly San Francisco.
Researchers were surprised to find that, if differences in wealth,
demographics and racial composition were taken into account, San
Francisco ranked first in the nation in homicides in both 2002 and 2003.
San Francisco's homicide rate of about nine per every 100,000 people
is moderate by traditional standards. But the rate is strikingly high
given San Francisco's wealth and low-risk demographics, the researchers
The broader finding, according to researchers, is that big cities may
not be the crucibles of violent crime they are often assumed to be.
Instead, the study suggests, homicide rates are high in some of
America's large cities largely because that's where poor people live:
Poverty and homicide tend to go hand in hand.
With a few exceptions, "the blighted urban core -- the classical
crime areas," didn't pop out as the hotspots, said George State
University professor Robert Friedmann, one of the study's researchers.
Conventional crime-data reports, besides lagging several years
behind, are much less refined than those routinely used to measure
educational or economic trends, Friedmann said. Comparisons of cities
based on raw per capita rates unfairly pit wealthy San Diego against
economically distressed Detroit, he said, yielding little practical
Besides San Francisco, a number of other medium-sized cities emerged
with higher-than-expected rankings. These included Riverside; Anaheim;
San Jose; Santa Ana; Omaha; Raleigh, N.C.; Albuquerque; Anchorage; and
Factors other than socioeconomics or demographics -- cultural or
policing issues -- might be pushing homicides up in those cities, said
Richard Rosenfeld, criminology professor at the University of
Missouri-St. Louis. Rosenfeld conducted the study with Alfred Blumstein
of Carnegie Mellon University and Friedmann.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Justice for the
Improving Crime Data project. The three researchers calculated homicide
rates in cities with populations of more than 250,000, taking into
account such factors as male unemployment rate, poverty, single-parent
homes, median income, length of residency, divorce rates, and the
percentage of blacks in the population.
(Blacks are killed at disproportionately higher rates than other
groups even when the data are adjusted for poverty, so the researchers
adjusted their findings to compare cities with small black populations
to those with large black populations.)
Researchers for the study engaged in a kind of handicapping. They
first predicted what cities' homicide rates would be, based solely on
their socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, then compared the
predictions to the study's findings.
For some cities, such as Washington and New Orleans, adjusting for
socioeconomic factors did little to change their national ranking. Both
kept high slots in the years studied, suggesting their homicide problems
go deeper than the high-risk demographics.
But other cities notorious for homicides surprised researchers.
Detroit, Cleveland and Newark, N.J., for example, have high homicide
rates -- an astonishing 42 per 100,000 people in 2002 in Detroit's case.
But when extreme poverty and other factors were taken into account,
homicide rates in these cities were actually lower than researchers
expected. New York City also had lower-than-predicted rates.
The finding suggests something is working to suppress homicides in
those cities, the researchers said. This was news to some police
officials. "It's kind of shocking," said Lt. Russell Solano, a
homicide detective supervisor in Detroit. "But what I want to know
is, do they have suggestions for bringing it lower? We need ideas."
Officials in cities that came out high on the adjusted scale also
voiced surprise. Some were quick to argue that taking into account
variables such as poverty doesn't account for the idiosyncrasies of such
quirky places as San Francisco -- with its vast spread between rich and
poor -- or Anchorage, where the usual rules linking wealth and
employment are turned upside down by a seasonal labor market.
Such a study "doesn't take into account the complexity of the
modern city," said Peter Ragone, spokesman for San Francisco Mayor
Interviews with police officials yielded no obvious explanation of
why cities differ.
Lt. John Hennessey, officer in charge of the homicide detail in San
Francisco, described conditions facing homicide investigators in his
city which are virtually identical to those in Los Angeles -- or those
of Detroit, for that matter. In San Francisco, Hennessey said,
detectives juggle high caseloads as they are deluged with street murders
involving black victims, committed in neighborhoods where witness
cooperation is difficult to secure.
Los Angeles remains a relatively dangerous city, with a crude
homicide rate of about 17 deaths per 100,000 people in 2002, and 13 per
100,000 in 2003. But poverty and demographics account for most of this
rate, the researchers concluded. And in 2003, Los Angeles actually had
fewer homicides than would be expected based on its demographic profile.
One implication of this may be that a focus on Los Angeles' gang
culture may be misplaced. The study cast doubt on the uniqueness of such
factors, suggesting that Los Angeles may not be so special after all.
"It is important not to make too much of how distinctive L.A.
is," Rosenfeld said.
Study authors acknowledge their analysis is limited, relying on only
two years of data. But they argue that it is a starting point for
Eventually, Rosenfeld said, the researchers hope to help isolate
factors that authorities control, such as resources for homicide
investigations, the number of patrol officers, or the degree of police
corruption, as part of the effort to lower homicide rates.
There is a further aim, Friedmann added: To underscore that there is
more to homicide than police.
Police departments are often taken to task for homicide rates, but it
would make about as much sense to hold health or education departments
responsible, Friedmann argued.
Many police seem to agree.
Homicide "isn't just a police issue, it is a society
issue," said Anchorage Police Capt. Thomas Nelson, echoing the
comments of police in other jurisdictions. "The police department
doesn't control poverty. It doesn't control jobs."