The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Murders Are Up – What Gives?

Police investigate a shooting in Chicago, IL.  Source:
I came across a cool quote recently, but since I’m horrible at attribution I don’t know where I first saw it.  I think I saw it on a great blog I recently found, In a State of Migration by Lyman Stone.  If so, kudos to Lyman.  But I’ve since seen that the quote can be attributed to David Foot, a Canadian economist and demographer at the University of Toronto.  The quote: “Demographics can explain two-thirds of everything.”

I believe this is true, and demographics is where we should first look when we want to understand complex and unexplained social phenomenon.

The latest example of this came with a recent New York Times article that noted a rise in murder rates among many large U.S. cities.  The Times reported that murders were up so far in 2015 when compared to 2014 in more than 30 cities — through August, up by 20 percent in Chicago and Kansas City; up by 44 percent in Washington, DC; up by 56 percent in Baltimore; up by 60 percent in St. Louis; and up by 76 percent in Milwaukee.  Those are indeed staggering increases.

An explanation of what’s been called a new violent crime wave, particularly by conservative commentators and opinion-makers, has been the Ferguson Effect:

Cops are disengaging from discretionary enforcement activity and the “criminal element is feeling empowered,” (St. Louis Police Chief Sam) Dotson reported. Arrests in St. Louis city and county by that point had dropped a third since the shooting of Michael Brown in August. Not surprisingly, homicides in the city surged 47% by early November and robberies in the county were up 82%.

Similar “Ferguson effects” are happening across the country as officers scale back on proactive policing under the onslaught of anti-cop rhetoric. Arrests in Baltimore were down 56% in May compared with 2014.

“Any cop who uses his gun now has to worry about being indicted and losing his job and family,” a New York City officer tells me. “Everything has the potential to be recorded. A lot of cops feel that the climate for the next couple of years is going to be nonstop protests.”

The veracity of the “Ferguson Effect” has been challenged by those on the left ever since the notion first surfaced.  More recently, Citylab wrote that FBI data shows that there’s no evidence, at least nationally, of any violent crime wave, as violent crime continues to trend downward in America.

However, in the spirit of demographics being able to explain at least two-thirds of everything, let me offer one provocative thought.  Cities are growing their numbers of white, and often affluent, residents.  Minorities, often affluent (or at least middle class), are similarly increasing their presence in suburban areas.  Maybe one impact of this demographic shift is that cities are holding onto a greater proportion of poor, disconnected and frustrated minorities.  They simultaneously see economic opportunity move closer to them, and further away.

On one hand, cities are getting an infusion of people, capital and jobs.  This infusion has eluded most cities, particularly Rust Belt cities, for the last 50-60 years.  The time is now for cities, in ways not seen before in my lifetime.  On the other hand, suburban opportunity has correspondingly opened up to minorities, who have become fed up with poor schools, crime, poor services, and a lack of private investment.  They’ve seen their communities deteriorate, even as nearby neighborhoods begin to glisten.  Those with the ability to leave are jumping at the chance.

Those who remain?  They lose a connection with longtime city residents who choose to move out.  They are less connected to city newcomers, their jobs and networks, than ever before.  They share the frustration with middle-class minorities over schools, crime, services and investment.  But they lack the ability to do anything about it.

This theory is purely speculative and requires research to see if it has legs.  It’s too early to determine, for example, if any crime uptick is due to particular local forces in selected cities, or part of a broader trend.  But I’d be willing to bet that there are demographic — and economic — roots to the data, and it will require more time to make a more definitive assertion.

5 Responses to “Murders Are Up – What Gives?”

  1. Alon

    I'd rather wait another year to see if there's actually a trend here, rather than a fluctuation. In the last 15 years, the murder rate in New York has trended down, but there were years in which it increased.


  2. Pete Saunders

    I tend to agree with you. We simply can't say right now if this is a trend or happenstance, and I hope I made that clear above. if it's not a trend, I'd gladly pull my speculative theory.


  3. Kevin Klinkenberg

    I also wonder about demographics, but in a slightly different way. We know that most violent crime is committed by young men. We also know we've been in a period of higher numbers of teens and 20-somethings. Has anyone tracked this simply by tracking the number of men in those age ranges vs crime numbers? I know it seems overly simplistic, but sometimes simplicity works.


  4. Alan

    To me, the biggest issue with this hypothesis is that the largest increases are in Milwaukee and Saint Louis, which have seen far smaller infusions of people, capital, and jobs as opposed to other cities.(A note— Milwaukee's equivalent of North County Saint Louis is Northwest Milwaukee, part of the city proper. It is likewise an area of 1950s suburbs that are currently in decline. On a recent bike ride through it, I saw several 1950s ranch houses boarded up— an aesthetic surprise to me, as I mostly associated boarded up houses with Victorian architecture.)


  5. Pete Saunders

    Interesting point you make about Milwaukee, which I know a little about and shares more with Detroit than it would like to believe. In fact, Milwaukee and Detroit are very similar cities in very similar states. As for the boarded up homes, they share this as well. The common perception is that Detroit's vacant homes are older Victorians or Roaring '20s structures, giving the city a Gothic look. But the truth is in both Detroit and Milwaukee there are many more vacant homes that are late '40s to early '60s small Cape Cods that became obsolete very quickly. The area where the Victorians used to be? That's vacant land now in Detroit.



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