The Geographic Distribution of Violent Deaths in the United States

The Geographic Distribution of Violent Deaths in the United States

Now that the murder rates in different countries and their biggest cities have been analyzed, the next logical step is to zoom in on the United States. The interna- tional comparisons in Tables 4.1 and 4.2 highlight the well-known fact that some parts of the world are much more violent—or much more peaceful—than others. But what about the spatial distribution of lethal vio- lence within the United States? Are there striking dif- ferences in the murder rate for different parts of the country, for different cities, and even for various neigh- borhoods within cities?

The answer, as everyone knows, is of course “yes!” A number of geographic factors strongly influence differential risks. As for the four sections of the country, historically the highest homicide rates have been recorded in the South (with 5.3 per 100,000 in 2013); the lowest have been in the Northeast (at 3.5 per 100,000) and the West (at 4.0). The rates in the Midwest generally have fallen in-between (at 4.5). Residents of metropolitan areas (urban centers rather than suburbs) face higher risks of violent death than do inhabitants of rural coun- ties or of small cities beyond the fringe of metro- politan areas.

Geography-based risks can even be further fine-tuned by calculating murder rates for U.S. cities. A closer look at the FBI’s data from munic- ipal police departments confirms that some urban centers were much more dangerous places to dwell in than others. The map in Figure 4.1 shows vertical bars that depict the number of resi- dents who were murdered out of every 100,000 inhabitants of that city (taking size into account is the only sound way to make such comparisons).

The map indicates that among the largest cit- ies, Detroit had the dubious distinction of being the homicide capital of the country in 2013. (When Detroit had to declare fiscal bankruptcy in 2013, it was a more dangerous place, with a murder rate of 45 per 100,000 residents, than it was in 2010, when its murder rate was 34 per 100,000.) The most well-known medium-size city with some of country’s roughest neighbor- hoods is New Orleans (which became even more dangerous after the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina but then improved substantially, as its murder rate tumbled from a sky-high level of 95 per 100,000 residents in 2007 down to still intolerable level of 41 in 2013). In fact, as far as trends go, outbursts of lethal violence diminished in nearly all big U.S. cities from the 1990s up to 2013. Despite the nationwide decline in murder rates, the risks facing residents remain much higher in Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Atlanta, and Miami than in Denver, San Francisco, San Jose, San Antonio, Los Angeles, and New York. The nation’s safest big cities were Seattle and San Diego (see Figure 4.1).

According to researchers, the disparities are not simply a function of size but seem to be deter- mined by conditions such as population density, the local economy (poverty and unemployment rates, wage scales, and the gap between rich and poor), special problems (the easy availability of illegal handguns, the extent of drug trafficking, and the ineffectiveness of police strategies), tradi- tions and customs (including the persistence of a subculture that condones violence), and demo- graphic factors (especially divorce rates and the proportion of the population that is poor, male,


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young, and of a marginalized minority group) (see Tardiff, Gross, and Messner, 1986; Chilton, 1987; Land, McCall, and Cohen, 1990; Messner and Golden, 1992; and Karmen, 2006).

To complicate matters further, murder rates vary dramatically within the confines of a city’s lim- its. Upscale urban neighborhoods are rarely crime scenes while the mean streets on the “wrong side of the tracks” are virtual battlefields between rival street gangs, drug dealing crews, or hostile factions of organized crime. Also, neighborhood homicide rates can flare up or die down substantially over a span of just a few years as local conditions deterio- rate or improve (see Karmen, 2006).

Who Gets Killed by Whom? How, Where, and Why?

Now that some patterns in the level of lethal vio- lence have been spotted, it is time to focus more closely on some common threads that run through thousands of slayings, and what has been pieced together about the relationships between victims

and their killers in recent years. Did the victims know their offenders? How did they perish? What caused the confrontations that led to their untimely deaths? To answer these questions, it is necessary to derive a profile or statistical portrait of the “typical” murder, victim, and killer.

NCVS interviewers ask no questions about murders of household members, and coroners’ records only maintain information about the deceased but not about the killer or the crime, so the UCR is the only source of detailed data that links the individual who perished to the mur- derer. UCR guidelines urge police officials to fill out a Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR) about each killing in their jurisdiction. The resulting SHR database provides information about the age, sex, and race of the victim and—if detectives solved the case and made an arrest—the accused person’s age, sex, race, weapon, possible motive, and his or her prior relationship–if any–with the slain person.

The first question that can be answered with the help of data from the SHRs is, “How many murders involved just a single killer and a lone victim.” Nearly

F I G U R E 4.1 Murder Rates In Major Cities, United States, 2013

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one half of all the homicides in which the police were able to figure out what happened were simply confrontations between two people. The remainder were either unknown or involved more than one attacker and/or more than one person who perished, according to the 2013 UCR.

Another issue that can be readily addressed is “How were the victims killed?” For decades, the majority of killers have dispatched their adversaries with firearms. Sometimes murderers use rifles and shotguns, but usually they prefer handguns (revolvers and pistols account for about two-thirds of all gun deaths). The proportion of victims who expired from bullet wounds rose from 64 percent in 1990 to just about 70 percent in 1993, before subsiding to 65 percent in 1998, lurching back up to 70 percent in 2004, and staying just about at that level (69 per- cent) in 2013. Knives and other sharp instruments ran a distant second as the weapons of choice, accounting for 12 percent of all deaths. The rest were slain by blunt instruments; fists and feet; hands (largely via strangulation and smothering); and by various other ways (explosions, arson, poisons, by being pushed, and other less frequent means).

Another issue that can be addressed with data from the SHRs is, “By whom? Did the victim know the killer?” Recall that this is the kind of issue that intrigued the founders of victimology. They were criminologists who wanted to study the interaction between victims and offenders. They were especially interested in uncovering any prior relationships between the two parties in cases of lethal interpersonal violence. For example, they wondered whether the killer and the mortally wounded person previously had known each other (as intimates, adversaries, or casual acquain- tances). To shed light on this pattern within slayings, victim–offender relationships need to be broadly categorized. Perhaps the two were com- plete strangers brought together by fate. Maybe both were members of the same family (nuclear or extended). The third possibility is that the killer and his target were acquaintances, neighbors, or friends (including girlfriend or boyfriend). Accord- ing to data in the SHRs derived from police inves- tigations from the 1990s up to 2013, in the most

common situation (ranging from 29 percent to 38 percent) the offender was a friend or acquaintance. Killings of one family member by another added up to an additional 12 percent to 14 percent each year. Slayings by strangers accounted for about 12 percent to 16 percent of cases for which the relationship could be surmised by detectives. Unfortunately for researchers, unsolved homicides of “unknown relationship” (at the time the SHRs were submitted) made up the largest category, hov- ering between 35 and 45 percent in recent decades (36 percent in 2013) (FBI, 2014).

If detectives could determine the victim– offender relationship in this residual grouping (which presumably contains many difficult-to-solve slayings by complete strangers), the percentages due to family quarrels and conflicts with friends and acquaintances probably would be much smaller. Nevertheless, looking only at solved cases, the old adage remains true: A person is more likely to be killed by someone he or she knows than by a com- plete stranger. In 45 percent of all solved murders in 2013, the killer was an acquaintance or even a former friend. Family members killed each other in 25 percent of all solved cases. Strangers were deemed to be the killers in nearly 20 percent of all solved cases. Because so many slayings remain unsolved, it is difficult to determine if the proportion of murders committed by strangers is rising. It remains an important issue for further research because it is more difficult to anticipate and guard against attacks by unknown assailants (see Riedel, 1987). (SHRs are filled out shortly after killings take place. Police departments usually do not send updated reports to the UCR for “cold cases” that they solve months or years later. Some departments do not submit SHRs to the UCR for each killing, as they are supposed to do in this voluntary reporting system.)

A third question that can be answered is, “Why? What were these sudden violent outbursts all about?” The reasons for the confrontations that claimed lives are called the “circumstances” by police departments and the FBI. The SHRs expose some widely held myths arising from TV shows and movies. Of the 6,681 murders committed during 2013 whose circumstances were known, in only


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13 were the deceased categorized as engaged in prostitution. Gangland killings of mobsters claimed 138 lives (up from 78 in 2007) but amounted to just 2 percent of all murders across the country that year. Drug dealers’ turf battles (386) and drug- fueled brawls (59) added up to another 7 percent. Killings arising from clashes between rival juvenile street gangs (584) accounted for nearly 9 percent of all murders in which the motive was known. Although this nationwide gang death toll dropped from about 670 in 2010 to nearly 585 in 2013, gang membership remained a risky activity in many urban neighborhoods. Robbers stole around 685 lives, about 10 percent of the 2013 body count (FBI, 2014b).

However, the largest category was “other arguments—not specified” (more than 25 percent of all cases solved during 2013). This miscellaneous grouping of heated disputes includes some that were trivial or based on misunderstandings and others that must have seemed to be matters worth killing for and dying over to the participants at the time. If this vague grouping is added to “unknown reasons” surrounding cases the police couldn’t solve then the motives for around half of all the 2013 killings remain a mystery and can’t be meaningfully analyzed. In sum, the avail- able data does not provide definitive answers to the key concern, “what brought about their deadly showdown?”

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