Murders In America’s 33 Largest Cities: Update, Did The Internet Cause Murder Rate To Drop?

Update: See below for crazy theory.

Here are the number of murders and non-negligent manslaughters in cities with at least half a million citizens, from 1985 to 2009, the last year statistics are available. These are from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics – UCR Data Online tool.

None of these adjust by population, which can lead to wild misinterpretations. For example, look at Detroit, which shows a rapid decline, but which is readily explained by the city’s depopulation. The pictures are most useful in cities whose populations are roughly stable.

FBI Murder By City
FBI Murder By City
FBI Murder By City
FBI Murder By City

The FBI did not include the murders “as a result of the events of September 11, 2001”, but did include those of the Oklahoma City bombing. There are also many “changes in reporting practices, annexations, and/or incomplete data” in the cities. For a complete list of caveats, see the UCR tool.

There is some concern that the murder rate is inching upwards. Yesterday in New York City, for example, there were two shootings, one in a crowd at Brighton Beach (one was killed, one dying, several injured), and at the A train-AirTran interchange in Queens (nobody dead). NYC’s murders in 2010 were 536. There have been 185 bodies added to the stack this year, the same number as there were last year at the same date. The rate thus appears constant.

But the nature of crime appears to be changing. In Chicago most prominently, but also in Washington DC, Boston, NYC, and other large cities large groups of “youths” have gathered together in “marauding” or “flash” mobs whose purpose is to attack, rob, intimidate, and beat. So far, these “youths” have not been blooded, however.

Most cities saw their murders drop. Phoenix was an exception until recently. Tuscon is still an exception. You are not supposed to speculate why: doing so risks a boycott by San Francisco. Indianapolis is a strange exception: people generally blame “teens.

Update. Crazy Explanatory Theory

Rudy Giuliani was widely credited for bringing down New York City’s notorious murder numbers. But at the same time Giuliani was working his miracle, murders were dropping nearly everywhere else, too. Why?

My guess is the internet and associated computer and entertainment technology.

Just look at when the drops began: the mid to late 1980s. This is when Usenet and Bitnet began, when people began playing with dial-up, independent bulletin boards, a.k.a. BBSs (remember those?). This is also when in-home video games became popular and cheap; when DVDs were introduced.

In other words, this is when people started staying inside routinely, with the consequence that they stayed away from other people. And everybody knows “other people” is the prime motivation for most murders.

The internet began in earnest in the late 1990s, becoming saturated about five to ten years ago.

Now, during this time, cell phones became ubiquitous, but until the past two or three years, these devices were not adequate replacements for computer-based internet surfing, game playing, or video watching. They, and highly portable pad computers, have now become superior, all-in-one devices than stay-at-home, big-box computers.

These “smart” phones can be taken amongst other people, where they will engender envy, a lovely and time-tested motive for murder.

So, if this absurdly speculative theory is correct, once “smart” phones and pad computers reach saturation (say, in ten years), then the murder rates will have increased significantly.

Note that the economy did improve starting in the late 1980s. This is also when the cold war ended, giving us a boost in many ways. But the economy has stank for several years now, as it did after 1998, and we are now at war in three countries, yet the murder rate has not risen (though it may no longer be falling).

Of course, the trends could be purely demographic. The so-called millennium baby boom began in the mid to late 1980s, too. And if you’re at home tending to your kids, you’re not out killing somebody. People are once more having fewer kids (fewer marriages, too), so again, they will head back outside.

(If I were still interested in pumping out papers, I could publish this and secure tenure in a department of sociology!)

18 Comments

  1. So all I have to do is wait until everyone is out of detroit to move back there? Shouldn’t take long…

  2. Are most areas showing fewer murders or just fewer arrests?

    “those offenses cleared by arrest or exceptional means;”

    The above snippet from the offense definitions seems to indicate if no arrest was made, no report was made.

    To look good an area can simply make fewer arrests each succeeding year whether actual cases declined or not.

  3. Bob,
    At first I thought that was a very astute observation until I read the UCR site more closely:

    “Each month, participating law enforcement agencies submit information on the number of Part I offenses known to them; those offenses cleared by arrest or exceptional means; and the age, sex, and race of persons arrested for each of the offenses. Contributors provide only arrest data for Part II offenses.”

    I believe this means that the reports of crime are made prior to the semi-colon (offenses known to them,) and not on the post semi-colon part (offenses cleared by…)

    I hope.

  4. Nomen,

    I interpret the “those offenses cleared by arrest or exceptional means” section as a definition of the only circumstances they consider “known to them”.

    I would like to know what they mean by “exceptional means”. It’s extremely nebulous.

    YMMV

  5. I assume exceptional means to suggest the use of deadly force and/or perpetrator self-inflicted fatal wounds.

  6. 536 murders in NY City!! How could that be with the repressive gun control ?

    Wait! Are you saying that it’s true that when guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns???

  7. GoneWithTheWind,

    As a matter of fact, yes. For if guns are banned, then, in fact, only outlaws will possess them.

  8. “Exceptional means” excludes normal law enforcement investigative or apprehension efforts. Perp died in an avalanche, was abducted by aliens, disappeared in a sink hole while on a jungle cruise, victim’s mother drilled him with a .38 as he was leaving court, piano dropped on him as he was walking on the sidewalk, US Attorney General granted him Witness Protection status due to his involvement in operation “Fast and Furious”, other things like that. See Modern Motion Picture Story Ideas listings for further details.

    Homicides have no Statute of Limitations, ever, so they are one class of crime that stay “on the books” until solved. Forever. Sometimes the “solving” process becomes weird. Ergo, “exceptional means”.

  9. The most disturbing pattern I see is in Indianapolis. Looks like massive law enforcement fail, big time. That includes questionable problems with judges and prosecutors. Any comments from Hoosiers?

  10. In looking at the shapes not the numbers, it looks as if 1990 was a year a lot of folks got murdered, and then it drops of. Not everywhere, but a lot of places. I remember moving back to Houston in that year, from the Notrh East: nothing special about that year, but I wasn’t murdered either. Any idea why – not the murdered part – the spike?

  11. Albuquerque and El Paso both have populations of roughly 600,000. They are about 230 miles apart. El Paso is a border town. El Paso had about 10 murders, down from 50. Albuquerque had about 55 and is steady. What gives?

  12. 49er

    There are Modern Motion Picture Story Ideas listings? I’ve often wondered why every story has at least one black gay Muslim Mexican-Chinese character from Chechnya whose family was eradicated by the Holocaust; was molested by a priest; is a recovering cigarette addict; and is a struggling Single Parent. Now I know.

  13. I am not sure if criminals had access to the internet during the late 1980s.

    What could possibly account for the spike during the early 90s then? (“Blame it on Bush”?) I don’t know- this is the reason that we have criminologists and sociologists (and Google).

    The decline seems to start during the early 1990s. Maybe there were less teens/youth during 1990s? (“People generally blame teens.”) Just a convenient theory after reading this post.

  14. Update comment: Good catch, Briggs. Certainly publishable.
    OTOH I’ll construct my game-winning theory around the build-up [beginning in the early ’90s] of an all-volunteer US military, and the various subsequent kinetic operations since then involving same. What else could provide a better homicidal activity outlet for young warrior types? Either the middle east or our cities, and the middle east won. I could go on and on, citing studies and sources, but I’ll trust in the peer review process available right here on this site to “prove” my assumptions. Any help out there?

  15. DAV. It’s a subscription service available only to “Hollywood” types. That’s why you haven’t heard of it before, but you obviously understand it’s benefits and parameters. For years another required “character” was a stuttering old fogie with a grubby beard and few teeth, a part I’m now well qualified to play, but alas, times change.

  16. I have seen many explanations for the general drop in violent crimes, including (but not limited to):

    * The waning and waxing of the crack cocaine epidemic
    * The increased availability of abortion in the 1970s, leading to fewer unwanted children, leading to fewer messed up adults in the 1990s and beyond
    * The phase-out of leaded gas and lead-based paint in the 1970s, leading to fewer people with impulse-control problems (supposedly one of the first symptoms of low-level lead poisoning)
    * Increased ability of police departments (not just NYC) to analyze crime patterns with computers and deploy officers effectively

  17. Kind of a mean spirited comment to claim that the homicidal people are going into the military. Most people who enlist in the military are 18, right out of highschool with no serious criminal record. They are hardly homicidal maniacs. If anything they are your nieghbors, children, grandchildren, nephews/nieces, brothers and sisters. Also the volunteer aspect of our military predates these charts.

    I can offer a possible answer to why the murder rates were higher in the early 90’s and lower now: In my state and a lot of states serial criminals and criminals who comment violent crimes are being sent to jail for a very long time. These are the people who tend to be involved in activities where killing someone is common. These laws were passed 20-30 years ago, maybe they work!

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