Writing for The Atlantic recently, Jeff Asher predicted that, “The United States may be experiencing one of the largest annual percent changes in murder ever recorded, according to my preliminary data.”
That’s a bold statement and will undoubtedly be used to evaluate the effectiveness of criminal justice policies around the country. In some cases, crime statistics will be weaponized for partisan attack.
For example, Los Angeles Times columnist Anita Chabria recently wrote that homicides were highest in what she calls “Trump’s California”. She contrasts murder rates in Merced, Tulare, and in particular Kern County, which according to her analysis voted 54 percent for Donald Trump and 64 percent for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy – with lower murder rates in Los Angeles and San Francisco, which she labels as “dark blue”. Her column leads readers to conclude that progressive policies are far more effective at preventing homicides.
But the devil is in the details.
Asher correctly notes that national crime statistics, as they have been compiled by the FBI, are not accurate. So, he tracked homicide (and other crimes) in select US cities that publish monthly crime statistics. These statistics are aggregated in what he calls his Year To Date Murder Tracker – and the numbers are looking good.
Using his list of 114 US cities, the year to date (YTD) murders are down from 5,987 in 2022 to 5,235 – or a drop of 12.6 percent.
Why the disparity?
Crimes that are potentially murderous acts are lumped together in the crime statistics as violent crimes known as “aggravated assaults.” They can include assaults with a deadly weapon (ADW), attempted murder, and assaults with great bodily injury (GBI), and include all types of weapons – not just firearms.
There is a myriad of factors that influence whether a violent crime becomes a homicide. Among them are the seriousness of the injury, the use of weapons, the age and relative health of the victim, the availability of medical care – in particular, speedy trauma care – and even the time of day (or night) that the victim is injured. Midnight to 6am is when one is least likely to survive.
Consequently, when Asher concludes that, in 2023, the United States was in the midst of the highest drop in homicides ever recorded – it may have less to do with murder than other factors.
Going back to Chabria’s “Trump County” analysis – Los Angeles County enjoys the services of 15 trauma centers, while there are just two in Kern County. Granted there are huge population differences but Chabria is talking about rates, not numbers. Kern County is also twice the size geographically of Los Angeles County, making for potentially exceedingly long ambulance rides indeed. Many rural counties have no trauma centers at all. This rural health care bias can contribute to higher homicide rates.
Medical care, not just trauma center availability, also complicates homicide crime analysis.
It is well known that hospitals were severely impacted by Covid-19, which contributed to higher-than-normal mortality statistics and probably higher homicide statistics.
Two things are certain – the lack of available trauma care contributes to higher mortality, including crime victim mortality, and the availability of trauma care contributes to their survival.
It is no surprise then that as we have moved beyond the pandemic, homicide rates would decline or more accurately, more potential homicide victims didn’t die. Yet the perpetrators of the crime that sent the victim to the hospital will face completely different consequences should a patient survive or die – and the crime statistics will be similarly skewed. The raises questions as to the relative sentences of the two offenders when both potentially intended the same outcome. Do drive by shooters or spree killers intend injury or death?
All of this exposes a kind of obtuseness in our analysis of homicide and violent crime, and raises questions of both under reporting and under charging criminal acts, all of which put potential victims in greater danger.
Asher and his organization, AH Datalytics do some amazing research – and full disclosure, I’m a fan – and in the case of homicides it’s possible he couldn’t be more right and yet more wrong.
Steve Smith is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute.