Want To Reduce Crime? Try The Bloomberg Approach.


Now that Mike Bloomberg has departed from the scene, we might want to look more closely at his signature achievement, namely, the notion that he turned New York City into a crime-free zone.  There’s been a lot of give and take on this one, particularly because much of the alleged decrease in violent crime was believed to be the product of a too aggressive, stop-and-frisk strategy employed by the NYPD.  But while civil libertarians and criminologists bat that one back and forth, I prefer to spend a little time analyzing the numbers that have been produced by Bloomberg’s administration  to bolster the claims that New York is now a very safe town.

English: New York Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg.

English: New York Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But before I get into the numbers, it’s important to understand that while New York contains more than 8 million people, this immense population lives in five very distinct boroughs which, if we throw them all together and only talk about the city as a whole, we end up with a picture that bears little relation to the circumstances in which most city residents actually live. Because crime is the most potent barometer for judging what’s called “quality of life,” if people feel physically secure they tend to consider themselves better off even if their material circumstances are not what they would like.  On the other hand, when people feel insecure and threatened by their environment, no degree of physical amenities can restore their sense of well-being or mitigate their fears that things just aren’t right.

Enter the Bloomberg numbers machine.  According to his numbers, violent crime continues to decline in New York, with homicides, the most visible of all violent crimes, being reduced to the lowest level in more than thirty years.  The drop has been seen in every category of violent crime, and it has been going on far longer than any expert would ever predict.  Even the noted criminologist Frank Zimring, who recently wrote a book about the decline in NYC crime, recently admitted that the decline was even greater than what he predicted might occur.

But there’s only one little problem.  If you look at crime stats on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, it’s clear that in many parts of the city people aren’t safe at all and worse, the drop in violent crime in some areas, particularly the wealthiest parts of the city, has been so steep that it tends to mask a much more severe problem in other parts of town.  For example, according to the FBI, the national rate for the four crime categories that comprise violent crime stands right now at 386.9 incidents per 100,000 people.  There are neighborhoods in New York City where the violent crime rate is more than three times as high.  The national murder rate in 2012 was 4.7, but in Brooklyn’s Brownsville right now it’s 15.1.  Forcible rape is 26.9 nationally but it’s higher in the Morrissania section of The Bronx and nearly double in Brownsville and “Do or Die’ Bed-Stuy.

Want to live in a crime-free zone?  Buy a two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s West End Avenue complete with cockroaches for only $2.5 million and you’ll live without fear.  The 20th Precinct, which covers the trendy area around Lincoln Center, has a violent crime rate of 123.5, less than one-third the national rate, and has yet to see a single homicide in 2013, unless you want to count the night that I ate dinner at Mort Zuckerman’s  Masa restaurant and got stuck with the check. But seriously, if you take the crime numbers for the West and East Sides of Manhattan, they go a long way to help flatten out ghetto crime numbers from Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx.

Much of the criticism about Bloomberg’s tenure centered on the degree to which he lavished attention and concern on Manhattan but never got involved in what happened to areas where his wealthy friends didn’t happen to reside.  There’s no question that crime rates in even the worst NYC neighborhoods nosedived in the 1990’s as they did nationwide.  But to continue hiding behind crime stats for Manhattan simply shortchanges the rest of New York City and everyone, no matter where they live, deserves a life free from crime.

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Time To Play The Great American Crime Game

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Every year when the FBI publishes the Uniform Crime Report and the Bureau of Justice Statistics publishes its report on crime victimizations, all the criminologists and crime researchers get to play what I call the Great American Crime Game.  It’s a game where you take the data from the FBI and the BJS, plug it into other types of numbers and then try to figure out why crime has gone up, or gone down, or not changed at all.

The UCR is based on crimes reported to the police and, according to the FBI, aggregates this information for law enforcement agencies that cover 95% of everyone living in the United States. The BJS report, on the other hand, is compiled by conducting at least two interviews with more than 160,000 respondents living in different, but representative  localities throughout the United States.

Both reports present data on what is called ‘index’ crimes which, according to the FBI, are the most serious crimes against persons or property and for which definitions of each type of crime tend to differ only slightly from state to state.  The most important crime for my purposes is aggravated assault, because it is within this category that most gun violence occurs. In 2012, for example, more than 427,000 serious crimes took place involving firearms, according to the BJS, of which the majority were assaults followed by robberies, with homicides (which BJS doesn’t count) placing a very distant third.

Now that you understand where the data comes from, you too can play the Great American Crime Game. What you do is take the data and correlate it with other data, such as population, employment, education and so forth.  And if a particular type of number, let’s say household income or employment correlates with crime numbers, i.e., they both go up or they both go down, then – voila! – we have an explanation for why crime is getting better, or getting worse, or whatever crime is doing.

The Great American Crime Game has been particularly popular since 1993, because that year marked the high watermark of violent crime, after which it has tumbled more than 50 percent in the following two decades.  Article after article, and book after book have been published on this unprecedented drop in violent crime, all of them built around various versions of the Great American Crime Game.

There’s only one slight problem.  The number of violent criminal victimizations reported by the BJS is about twice as high as the number of crimes reported by the UCR.  But that’s because the FBI only publishes crime data derived from crimes reported to the police, whereas the BJS asks and counts all criminal victimizations whether they were reported or not.  And they candidly admit that underreporting of serious violent crime runs at more than 50 percent.  In 2012 for example, the FBI report shows 657,545 aggravated assaults, the BJS shows 996,110 in the same category.

I have been reading crime studies for years, and virtually every article and book repeats two basic maxims that are accepted up and down the line: (1). violent crime rates in disadvantaged neighborhoods are much higher than anywhere else; and (2). inner-city crime is underreported compared to reports of crime everywhere else.  I can’t remember the last time I read a scholarly article on crime in which the author didn’t raise a cautionary note based on one, if not both of those views.

There’s only one slight problem.  It’s not true. In fact, even though African-Americans are twice as likely as Whites to believe that the cops aren’t interested in responding to crime, the BJS report indicates that 60% of all violent crimes are reported by Blacks, whereas only 45% of violent crimes are reported by Whites.  And if we drill down a little further to examine aggravated assaults with weapons, 76% of such crimes were reported by Blacks and only 49% were reported by Whites.

I’m not saying that the ghetto is safe.  But the discrepancy in these numbers is so significant that it makes me wonder whether playing the Great American Crime Game has taught us much at all.  On the other hand, why should I be surprised?  We sent 60,000 young men to their deaths in Southeast Asia based on a naval attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never took place.  So should we be overly concerned about the validity of a shooting or a knifing here or there?

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Thanks To The Government, We Finally Have Some Good Numbers About Gun Violence

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Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the major issues in dealing with gun violence is that the data seems to fly all over the map.  And if you don’t have reliable data then it’s pretty tough to develop a solid strategy for dealing with the problem. Of course you can always deal with this by saying that there is no problem.  But let’s leave the loonies to talk (or yell) among themselves.  For the rest of us, who believe that we try to make evidence-based decisions, if there ain’t good evidence there ain’t a decision.But this may have changed this week with the release by the American Public Health Association of a report that analyzes firearm injuries from 2003 to 2010, using national data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which is a branch of HHS. The study aggregated data from virtually every hospital in the United States, or at least every hospital that is connected to the government through HHS-administered programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans, etc.  In other words, virtually every hospital. And the injury data, drawn from hospital admissions, was coded to pick up just about every type of primary or secondary diagnosis that could have been the result of a gun injury.  The bottom line is this: If this data ain’t complete, there ain’t no complete.

One caveat before I talk about the actual findings:  the data on hospitalizations seriously undercounts the actual level of gun violence because it does not cover ER visits, but only hospital admissions. We can assume that most people who came to the ER with a gunshot wound probably ended up staying in the hospital, but the Department of Justice data on gun violence, which comes from the FBI (which comes from state and local law enforcement) doesn’t break gun injuries out of the much larger category of gun violence, which means any criminal incident in which a gun was involved,whether someone was shot or not.  And of course the hospital data completely undercounts homicides, because even though slightly less than ten percent of hospital admissions resulted in death during the admission period, we can assume that almost all homicides and certainly all suicides were taken not to a hospital or an ER, but to the morgue.

Given the caveats above, the findings of this report still require serious thought and consideration.  First and most important is the fact that of the more than 250,000 gun injuries between 2003 and 2010, more than 30% were classified as self-inflicted wounds.  Of late the NRA has been patting itself on the back because the number of firearm deaths that are ruled as accidents is quite low, so low that accidental gun deaths don’t even make it to the list of major accident deaths published by the CDC.  But gun injuries are very serious, the report gives convincing evidence that the costs of gun injury hospitalizations averages $75,000, which means that we are spending an awful lot of money, nearly one billion dollars every year, on taking care of people who didn’t even know how to handle a gun.

The other significant finding from a public health point of view is that more than one-third of gun injury patients had no medical insurance. But this should not surprise, given the fact that 40% of the hospitalizations involved males between the ages of 18-30, which is exactly the age bracket occupied by people who usually make the conscious decision not to carry medical insurance at all. So not only do we face a serious use of medical resources for gun injuries, a third of which could be prevented by simply locking up, locking away or unloading the guns, but we also face a significant impact on public health budgets, since so many of these patients are uninsured.

It seems to me that enough data has now been produced to move the discussion beyond the debate over whether gun violence represents a health issue at all.  And if anyone reading this blog truly believes that physicians and other health professionals should refrain from talking about guns in terms of health, then they’re reading the wrong blog.  Over the next several weeks I’m going to be making some suggestions about how the medical community might try to deal with gun violence at the level where it really counts – the contact with patients before they become a statistic in the next report.



How Do We Know That Crime Is Going Up or Down?


Violent crime rates 1973-2005

Violent crime rates 1973-2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every time the gun control crowd makes a peep, the NRA and its juggernaut PR operation swings into high gear to remind  us that Americans are safer because we can own guns.  And they point to the fact that over the last twenty years, while the number of guns in private hands has doubled, the rate of violent crime has dropped by half.  Now let’s forget the fact that 95% of the decline in violent crime took place fifteen years ago and that over the last few years the violent crime rate has been slowly inching up.  If for nothing other than coincidence, you still can’t argue with the notion that more guns does seem to equal less crime.

But a funny thing happened the last time this debate broke out, namely, that despite the evidence of a decrease in violent crime, a majority of Americans feel that they are living in a more dangerous place.  This was the finding of public opinion polls published both by Gallop and Pew, the former finding that more than two-thirds of their respondents felt crime was worse, the latter pegging the number at 55 percent.  Given these findings, should it surprise that so many Americans are heeding the NRA’s call and rushing down to their local ;police stations to apply for permits to carry a gun?  Every day we read another story about how police agencies are unable to keep up with the flood of applicants for concealed-carry permits while most gun manufacturers report that they are at least six months behind in  catching up with the demand for small, concealable guns.

But if you want to blame the NRA for ginning up public concern about crime and therefore the necessity to go out and buy a gun, you may be barking up the wrong tree.  Because it turns out the percentage of Americans who believe that crime has increased and are in favor of stricter gun laws outweighs the percentage who agree that crime has increased but are against stricter laws by a factor of two to one! And even though this is a Rasmussen poll, and everyone knows that Rasmussen screwed up 2012, a difference of 64% to 28% simply can’t be ascribed to the bias or agenda of the polling organization.

So where does this disconnect between perception and reality about crime come from on the part of people who don’t like guns?  You might find the following story interesting, if not instructive.  Last week a community discussion about gun violence took place in Jamaica Plain, MA, which is a middle-class, racially and ethnically mixed community bordering the Roxbury ghetto on one side and the very affluent community of Brookline on the other. The meeting was called by the area’s State Representative, Jeff Sanchez, who supports a new gun law proposed by Gov. Patrick.

Reading the report of this meeting, it’s clear that the tone and the content of the meeting was decidedly anti-gun.  But what caught my eye was the comment by County Sheriff, Steve Tompkins, who noted that Massachusetts already had some of the toughest gun laws in the country but gun crimes were “spiraling” upwards.  Not moving slightly upwards, not increasing substantially, spiraling upwards. His word, not mine.

There’s only one problem with this ‘spiral.’  It doesn’t exist.  In 2011 Massachusetts recorded 28, 232 violent crimes, including 184 murders, 19,626 assaults and 6,768 robberies.  For 2012, violent crime totalled 26.953, murders were 121,  assaults were 18,638 and robberies were 6,552.  In fact the data clearly shows that there has been a crime spiral in Massachusetts – downward; more than a 5% decline in the overall numbers in one year.  The drop in murders (roughly 30%) is particularly significant because murders are mostly committed with guns.

I don’t blame the folks who attended this meeting for thinking that crime is increasing when their own law enforcement officials tell them that this is the case, even when the same officials send data to the FBI that shows the opposite to be true.  But I have to wonder about the motivation of law enforcement officials who talk about the ‘spiraling’ of crime to the people whose taxes pay their salaries.  I hav to wonder…



What Do We Know About Mass Shootings?

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mass shootings  I have spent enough time and words discussing the shortcomings of Mike Bloomberg’s approach to gun violence but now it’s time to give him a pat on the back.  I’m referring to the report that his group published last month that gave a very detailed of mass shootings since 2009; mass shootings being defined by the FBI as an incident in which one individual shoots kills four or more people within a brief period of time.  The report is based on data from the FBI’s supplement to the UCR, along with media and law enforcement descriptions of each event.

The report’s publication elicited the usual response:  the NRA and its minions like John Lott derided or simply lied about it, the gun control crowd yawned, mentioned the report in this blog and that blog, and then went back to thinking about whatever they have been thinking about since Toomey-Manchin bit the dust.  But the report really does deserve scrutiny because it not only contains some very significant information about multiple shootings, but also forces us to think about the most effective strategies for dealing with gun violence, if in fact we want to think about the issue at all.

The most important piece of evidence from the report is the correlation between multiple shootings and domestic, holiday environments. Want to see a gun-fight other than on television?  Invite the whole family over for a party and then let an ex-spouse into the home.  This was the single, most common environment in which multiple killings occurred, and in many cases the grand finale then involved the shooter turning the gun on himself.

More than half the 93 mass killings that took place between January 27, 2009 and the Navy Yard massacre on occurred this year on September 16, involved not just people who knew each other, but people who were related by marriage, blood or both.  All of these killings took place in or adjacent to a family residence, as did many of the other mass murders which didn’t involve domestic relationships.  NRA blather to the contrary, only 15% of all these killings took place in “gun-free” zones like schools, government buildings, etc.  The idea that such environments create a greater opportunity for gun violence is not supported by the data collected by the FBI.  I mean, who are you going to trust when it comes to information about crime – the NRA or the FBI?

Finally, the report also notes that 10% of the shooters had exhibited behavior which at some time or another resulted in some degree of contact with the mental health system.  But it is not clear whether any of these individuals were ever treated for mental illness, nor were they prohibited from owning firearms due to their mental state. Slightly less than half of the perpetrators appeared to have previous criminal histories or other reasons that would have prohibited them from possessing guns.

Which brings us to the nub of the issue: Is the evidence contained in this report align itself with the strategies for controlling gun violence being advocated by Mike Bloomberg and his friends?    Maybe yes and maybe no.  Obviously the “prohibited” persons who committed roughly 40% of these mass killings would have had more difficulty acquiring a gun if private sales required a background check. Score one for universal background checks.  On the other hand, of the 93 people who have committed mass murders over the past 4 and 3/4 years, only one had spent enough time in a mental health facility to forfeit his right to purchase or own a gun. Score zero for gathering mental health records.

Those of us who want to do something about gun violence face two daunting tasks: one is to figure out how to mobilize grass-roots support on a continuous and effective basis; the second is to figure out what to do.  You’ll see some more posts on both issues shortly.

Understanding Crime: A Tale Of Two Cities – Chapter 1

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After I published my last blog I received an email from Susan W: “So why does Chicago have such a high murder rate?”  She’s not the only one asking that question.   Problem is that the answer isn’t a single answer because there’s no type of behavior that can be explained by one, single factor.  In the preface to its report, the FBI lists thirteen factors that need to be taken into account, including  economic conditions, culture, marital situations, crime reporting practices of the citizenry, population density, age cohorts, etc., etc., etc.  And the report states that these are “some” of the factors that might influence crime levels.

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to take the FBI at its word and use those factors plus others to try and construct a profile for two cities that have very different crime patterns even though they are extremely similar in many of the social, economic, cultural, demographic and law enforcement categories listed by the FBI.  And just as important as the statistical data is the fact that I happen to live midway between these two cities, I travel through them all the time, and I know their histories and even some of their current residents very well.

I’m talking about two cities in Massachusetts: Springfield and Worcester.  Let’s look at some quick numbers.  Population: Worcester is 183,247; Springfield is 154,518. Per-capita income: Worcester is $24,544; Springfield is $18,483.  Percentage of workforce in administrative or sales: Exactly the same (15% and 10%.)  Unemployment: Worcester is 7.7%, Springfield is 8.4%  Public school reading proficiency: Same for both – 69%.  Data is all from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, whose websites are shut down at the moment.

One last demographic comparison which is usually relevant to discussions about crime.  While the per-capita income is substantially higher for Worcester versus Springfield, population density which is considered a major factor in crime rates (more urban = more crime) is almost exactly the same:  4,845 for Worcester, 4803 for Springfield. When we turn to crime data, however, all similarities disappear.  Let’s look at homicide first.




In 2012, Springfield’s (per 100,000) homicide rate was 7.14, in Worcester it was 4.3.  Rape was 25 to 18, robbery was 351 to 228, overall violent crime rates were 1,042 to 960, the parity due to a higher rate of assault in Worcester than Springfield.  On the property crime side, there was no parity at all.  Springfield’s rate for burglary, larceny and auto theft was 4,561, Worcester registered 3,514.

Let’s put these numbers into the national context.  Worcester’s murder rate was slightly below the national rate; Springfield’s rate was nearly twice as high.  Worcester’s property crime rate was 18.6% higher than the national number, Springfield’s was 37.3% higher.  So if you live in Worcester, your body is a little safer than anywhere else in America but your property is somewhat more at risk.  If you live in Springfield, I suggest you stay inside at all times, double-lock your doors and get rid of your car.

Back to the beginning.  Susan W asked for reasons why there are so ,many murders in Chicago.  We don’t know yet but if we analyze enough data, the answer may ultimately speak for itself.  Stay tuned.

It’s Official! When It Comes To Murders, The Second City Is Now The First City





Chicago has always been known as the ‘Second City’ because it can’t seem to compete with New York.  But that’s changed.  The latest report on American crime released annually by the FBI, shows that when it comes to murder, Chicago now leads the list.

Since my diaries on crime seem to generate lots of bickering over the data, I want to make one thing very clear: the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports are estimates because: 1) they are based on partial data; 2) they assume that every reporting department collects and analyzes its crime data in the same way. Nevertheless, the gap between murders in Chicago and everywhere else are so great that we can say with some degree of certainty that the Windy City has really stepped it up in 2012.

According to the FBI, Chicago had 500 murders in 2012, while New York dropped to a paltry 419. Note, incidentally, that New York’s population is three times  higher than Chicago’s (8.7 million to 2.7 million, respectively) which makes Chicago’s murder rate (per 100,000) about four times higher than New York’s rate, 18 to 4.8.

Think Chicago’s an unsafe city? Think again. The 2012  murder rate in Flint, MI was 63! Down the road a bit in Detroit the rate was only 55. Philadelphia’s a veritable garden of tranquility with a homicide rate just slightly over 21.

Altogether there were 15 cities that counted at least 100 murders in 2012: The Big 4 above, plus Los Angeles (299), Baltimore (219), Houston (217), New Orleans (193), Dallas (154), Memphis (133), Oakland (126), Phoenix (124), St. Louis (113), Kansas City (105) and Indianapolis (101).

The total population for these cities is somewhere between 25 and 30 million. Their police departments reported 3,420 homicides in 2012, out of a national reported total of 14,827. Which means that cities that held less than 10% of the US population accounted for almost one-quarter of all murders. Way to go you big cities!

What I find most significant about the FBI data on the geography of homicide is not the cities that made the murder list, but the cities that didn’t. Jacksonville, for example, didn’t make the list. Think there’s no inner-city neighborhoods in Jacksonville? Next time you drive down I-95 on your way to Daytona or Palm Beach, get off at Lem Turner Road and cruise around.

There are lots of cities like Jacksonville filled with crummy neighborhoods whose existence we lament but really don’t do anything to help things change. And many of these cities don’t have double-digit murder rates and yet we don’t know why. Twenty years ago, for example, New York City initiated a community-based policing  system that was credited with steep declines in crime. It was copied by virtually every other metropolitan police department and in some places it worked and in others made no difference at all.

One last point about the 2012 FBI Report: It shows that the average value of the property that was reported stolen in larceny and burglary increased from $1,721 in 2011 to $1,726 in 2012. Maybe the economy is finally recovering.

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