St. Louis City just passed 200 murders in 2017. Should we panic?

Photo by Robert Cohen, [email protected]

2017 is drawing to a close, and the number of homicides has surpassed 200 for the first time since the mid-1990s. We all knew it was going to happen, we’ve been outpacing last year’s homicides since mid-summer, but now it’s official. Our New Year will be peppered with the obligatory pessimism that comes along with news like this.

But before we all go and defenestrate ourselves, let’s bring some perspective to these numbers. Here’s a few things to keep in mind:

The Crime rate is still lower now than it had been throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Sure, we’ve breached 200 for the first time since Clinton was in office. But, nationally, the homicide rate is about 35% lower than it was in 1995. Even in St. Louis City, our overall crime rate is half what it was in the mid-1990s (although, thanks to our lower population, our homicide rate now is about the same as it was in 1995).

This homicide increase isn’t just a St. Louis phenomenon

Homicides have increased in most big cities. Chicago, Baltimore, Louisville, Tulsa, Albuquerque, Memphis, Houston, Cleveland, and others have seen their number of homicides increase in a significant way. It’s obviously really bad here in St. Louis, but we have to temper our self-hatred to a certain degree because, clearly, something is going on nationwide to trigger this homicide rise.

By that I mean, obviously, the opioid epidemic


When you have a growing demand for illicit drugs, more sellers will enter the market. When disputes inevitably arise, conflicts cannot be taken to the police, the courts, or other legitimate authorities for settlement. The winner of these disputes is often the guy most willing to resolve things violently.  That’s just what you get when you mix game theory and human nature.

Drug related homicides have increased by at least 22% in big cities (it’s likely higher), while other types of homicide have remained about the same. Drug arrests have risen by about 12.5% from 2014-2015, further indicating an increase in drug market activity.

This isn’t an unprecedented phenomenon.  Similar homicide spikes in the 80s and 90s were triggered by the crack epidemic and slowly settled down as that epidemic waned.  Something similar is happening now with the opioid epidemic and, over the course of the next decade, it will also begin to wane. Let’s hope that our country can one day come up with a better way to regulate our species’ natural proclivity towards mind altering drugs without incentivizing violence.

The Ferguson Effect might be a factor… but not a big one.

It is awfully suspicious that the homicide rate began to suddenly increase right in the aftermath of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray.

The Ferguson Effect has two different modes of action, de-policing and de-legitimization of the criminal justice system.

De-policing is the idea that recent unrest has led police officers to hold back from engaging criminals. This cooling effect on police work leaves more criminals on the streets and therefore increases the crime rate.

There’s some evidence for this. Police surveys have shown that many officers are concerned about their safety and more are reluctant to stop and question suspicious persons. There is also specific evidence from studies in Chicago and Baltimore that arrest rates declined in those cities after highly publicized police shootings and that this declining arrest rate was accompanied by an increasing homicide rate. However, correlation does not equal causation.  We can’t be sure that the homicide rate increased because of the declining arrest rates, or because of some other reason. Arrest/offence ratios (number of arrests per total offenses) in big cities have been declining since long before the 2015 homicide spike and the Ferguson protests.  This fact leads us towards another conclusion:  maybe the homicide rate is increasing for reasons unrelated to the number of arrests (like, you know, drugs)

The second mode of the Ferguson effect is the de-legitimization of the criminal justice system. In order for the police to do an effective job, they need participation from the community. They need the community to report suspicious persons, act as witnesses, and provide information. If a community doesn’t feel safe calling the police, or doesn’t think the police will actually help, they cease to be of assistance and the police are less effective. It makes sense to conclude that the Michael Brown killing triggered a de-legitimization of the police force among black communities. Surveys did show that many people, black and white, viewed the police more negatively after these heavily publicized events. It makes for a convenient theory, but the evidence for it is mixed.

A study in Milwaukee found that calls for police service declined in black communities following the beating and severe injury of an unarmed black man and after similar events across the country. The researchers in this study concluded that this may have had an effect on public safety. The problem is it’s really hard to say for sure how much of an effect it has had. The slight decline in calls for service probably cannot explain the increase of homicides by 25% or more.

The rates of calls for police service, during normal times, are similar between white and black communities. The rates decrease after periods of unrest, but then return to normal levels within a year or so. While it is possible that the effects of police de-legitimization are more pronounced in structurally disadvantaged (read: poor) neighborhoods, the data just isn’t firm enough to support the claim that our recent homicide hike is due to events like Ferguson.

The Ferguson Effect might play a role, but the main source of “heat” in our current crime wave is the drug market.

Homicides are incredibly concentrated;

Just because the homicide rate has increased by 67% since 2012 does not mean that you are 67% more likely to be murdered. This is probably something we already appreciate on a personal level, but which gets lost when looking at the stats on the whole.

Take a look at the 2017 homicide map. As you can see, most of our homicides are concentrated in the north part of the city.  I’ve written about this before. Consider this study by Sociologist Andrew Papachristos in which he found that 70% of non-fatal gunshot victims in Chicago were part of a social network which comprised only 6% of Chicago’s total population. In a similar study he found that 41% of all homicides happened within a social network comprised of only 4% of a particular neighborhood’s population.

This risk of homicide is extremely concentrated within social networks.

Operation Ceasefire has been a successful strategy shaped by this research.

Let’s be careful about getting “tough on crime”

In times like these, some will tend to panic and adopt a “tough on crime” mentality. This is fine, as long as we understand what is effective and what is not.

For example, many people like to bring up Rudy Guiliani getting “tough on crime” and triggering the great crime drop of the 1990s. Crime dropped everywhere in the 1990s, and it was mostly due to the waning of the crack epidemic, not Rudy Guiliani. Stop, Question, and Frisk has been shown to be an unsuccessful strategy that betrayed the constitutional rights of American citizens. The efficacy of so-called “broken windows” policy is also questionable. Increasing arrest rates for minor crimes like disorderly conduct have not been shown to decrease the incidence of more severe crimes such as assault. It’s uncertain whether expanding or contracting the availability of guns to law abiding citizens has an effect on crime, so we shouldn’t rush to blame gun laws, either.

However, hot spot policing has been shown to be effective. Increasing bond amounts for gun crimes has been shown to be effective. Operation Ceasefire has been shown to be effective. The best way forward is probably to try more of these things while also pushing towards a drug control strategy that doesn’t include the word “war.”

A final word on crime

It would be foolish to assume that we could pull a few policy levers and drastically decrease crime in our city.

Violent crime is a pernicious community sickness which stems from a combination of culture and human nature. All of us are playing a social game. The goal of this game is to be as successful within our social network as we can be. The rules of this game and the definition of success is determined by the particular network in which we live. Throughout our city, there are pockets of individuals embedded within communities where social success is achieved through success in an illegal market. When you insert competition into an environment with no legal form of conflict resolution, the winning strategy is often to be more willing to do violence than your opponent. This creates networks in which individuals are incentivized to become more violent than the people that came before them.  There’s a sick sort of evolutionary momentum where these violent networks become self-sustaining.  They organically pull in young men, expose and desensitize them to violence, and then filter out all but the most heartless.  It is within these networks where Papachristos finds 70% of the gunshot victims and 41% of the homicide victims. These are the networks driving up the homicide rates of most of the big cities, including St. Louis.

We can employ a variety of strategies to combat crime, but the only real solution is to dig into each of these networks and change the game.  As soon as I figure out a way to do this, I’ll let you know.