Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Gutter: Don't rock the jukebox

I can admit it:

A lot of the items listed on Stuff White People Like apply to me. I guess that’s what makes that website so hilarious: it’s funny and true.

Case in point: this classic post from last March. As a proud owner of the first four seasons of The Wire (not the fifth season, though, because it’s not as good; if there’s another thing us white people are good at and like to do, it’s going out of our way to make distinctions among seasons of television shows), I can relate to almost every point made in the write-up. But while they do talk about how white people love the perceived authenticity of The Wire, they fail to follow through on that point to its effect:

Enthralled by the show’s authentic nature and presentation, white people believe that they have been truly exposed to any number of environments, cultures, and elements of society that, in reality, they’ve spent their entire lives hoping to avoid. But this exposure - or at least the idea of it - allows white people to think that they know something about these social subsets: drug dealers, dock workers, cops, etc.

So that’s why, when I read this story from the Post-Gazette, I feel like I’m somehow qualified to look deeper due to my many viewings of The Wire.

Both violent crime and property crime were down in Pittsburgh last year, mirroring a national trend, according to statistics released yesterday by the FBI.
And they have the numbers to prove it:

Nationwide, the FBI's preliminary Uniform Crime Report shows that violent crime -- which includes murder, aggravated assault, robbery and rape -- dropped 2.5 percent in 2008. Property crime -- such as burglary and motor vehicle theft -- fell 1.6 percent.

In Pittsburgh, violent crime fell 2.8 percent and property crime was down 9.4 percent.
Take that East St. Louis.

But wait, let’s not pop the anti-crime champagne just quite yet.

The city's homicide rate saw a sharp increase of 38 percent. There were 72 murders in Pittsburgh in 2008, up from 52 in 2007.
And actually, there were more than that.

By the end of the year, the city homicide squad had investigated 79 homicides, but the number counted by the FBI dropped to 72 after some were reclassified as justifiable, including three police-involved shootings and several defense killings.
But like I said, I watch The Wire, so I know how to gloss this information.

We must look no farther than fictional Baltimore Major Howard “Bunny” Colvin, commander of the Western District, who, after hearing the mandate from superiors that the felony crime rate had to see an immediate decrease lest Colvin and his fellow officers suffer the consequences, opined that some crimes could be written up as less than they are - aggravated assault reported as simple assault or disorderly conduct, rape reported as indecent assault - but great difficulty exists in the case of homicide.

As Bunny said, “How do you make a body disappear?” And that task grows considerably tougher when there are 79 lives taken by the hands of others in a city with a population of 300,000.

Because the practice of “juking the stats” - adjusting criminal statistical reporting to make it appear that crime is less than it truly is - is likely at work in every metropolitan police department, we can only really get a rough estimate on the matter of such violent crimes as aggravated assault, rape, and even robbery. But homicide is a different story. If someone’s murdered, there’s no other way to slice it, even if the death is later termed “justified.”

In a sense, murder is the only crime stat we can really trust, and isn’t it the most important one of all anyway? More than anything else, more than not having your car stolen and not having your house burned and not getting your ass whooped or your wallet snatched, you really, really don’t want to get killed. But in Pittsburgh, 38.5% more people suffered that fate in 2008 than in 2007.

By comparison, according to the FBI Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report for 2008, Pittsburgh had one of the highest jumps of any major city in the country with its 38.5% increase. Columbus - population: 751,887 - saw its murder count increase 38% from 2007 to 2008, with 109 homicides in 2008 and 79 in 2007. Jackson, Mississippi - population: 174,734 - climbed from 46 murders in 2007 to 63 in 2008, a 37% increase. Kansas City, Missouri (451,454) increased 27.8%; St. Louis (356,204) increased 21%; Tuscon (528,917) increased 32.7% (although even with 65 murders in 2008, the per capita rate was lower than Pittsburgh’s); Chicago (2,829,304) increased 15%; New York City increased 5%; and South Bend, Indiana, saw its murder numbers more than double in 2008, with 15 homicides as opposed to the 7 recorded in 2007. The increase was no doubt linked to Pitt’s four-overtime win at Notre Dame last fall.

But most major American cities saw a decrease in 2008. Detroit decreased 21.9%; New Orleans decreased 14.4%; Baltimore decreased 17%; Houston decreased 16.2%; Philadelphia decreased 15.6%; Milwaukee decreased 32.4%.

You might recall that this is what Carmen Robinson was talking about during her run for mayor. She always took the “most livable city” claims and the lower crime rates and asked us to look beyond, to look at what’s really happening. What’s really happening is that more people were murdered in this city last year than any year since 1993, when Pittsburgh was in the grips of New Jack City fever.

Last summer, when there seemed to be a new homicide in the paper everyday, I heard an interesting theory that I cannot back up or support or prove in any way, shape, or form, but I think it’s worth considering. The Post-Gazette article references “1993, when there were 83 killings amid a crack cocaine epidemic and intense gang rivalries.”

That’s a little more than 15 years ago. You’d have to think that such violence would have led to a lot of task forces and crackdowns and mass arrests, right? And, in my unqualified mind, it’s easy to imagine that gang-related crimes would carry a sentence of anywhere between 10 years and life. From there, it’s not hard to imagine an influx of prison releases, either from 10 or 15-year sentences or early release on longer terms, all happening around the same time. Old beefs die hard, I would presume, so you could have a confluence of events coming together in 2008, which might have resulted in the high murder rate.

Just something to consider. I’m sure local government would rather look at options like putting up cameras or opening curfew centers in the hopes that those devices will lead to better crime stats, even if they probably won’t prevent any murders.

15 comments:

Jerry said...

The "old gangsters getting released from prison and settling scores" thing is a common canard. I've heard it in three different cities that I've lived in. It's a compelling argument, but no more statistically supportable (AFAIK) than the Freakonomics suggestion that the legalization of abortion led to a decrease in the crime rate 20 years later.

More relevant (in my mind) is the depression. People have less money, they get desperate, they commit crimes. Of course, I have no more statistics to back up my conjecture than you do yours, though I'm sure I'd read something about the correlation between bad economic times and high crime rates.

---

Also, I love how pretty much every comment on "Stuff White People Like" boils down to: "Other white people are posers, but ME -- I'm genuine. I like Vespas because of their quality, not because they're hip right now."

Chris Peak said...

When I first heard the "old gangsters" theory, I thought of the Freakonomics abortion theory, too. While neither could really be proven, they're pretty interesting food for thought.

I think the economy is probably playing a role in it, but if you look at the areas that seem to have more homicides, poverty isn't a new issue. The current conditions might have exacerbated the situation, but I don't know if it's the main cause.

Heath said...

Ha! When I read those stats in Tuesday's paper, I thought of the wire too. Guess I'm pretty white.

As a practical matter, I'm taking classes with some folks who were deeply involved in the city's former gang problems, and they believe that most of those arrested back then only spent 2-3 years in prison for most of their exploits. I'm sure those with more serious crimes spent significantly longer sentences, but I'm unsure as to whether present day crime can be linked to former gang members.

But you touch on an interesting idea that our prison system fails to rehabilitate incarcerated peoples, who often resort back to prior behaviors for lack of other opportunities and the stigma that comes from being in jail. There's a real interesting movement to "ban the box" on employment applications that asks whether you are a former felon, because said people have a hard enough time getting jobs, without being denied from the start.

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