Trying to predict how many homicides there might be in a city by year’s end is kind of like going to Las Vegas with a barrel of money and expecting to win. Just when you think you’re ahead of the game your fortunes can drastically turn.
Call it the inexplicability of random acts. While violent crime is down overall in many major cities, several of them, including San Francisco and Boston, reported the highest homicide rates in a decade last year. And the number of murders in those two towns were dwarfed by those in some cities nearly two-thirds their size — Cleveland, Kansas City, Mo. and Charlotte, N.C. Nashville, Tenn., a city of 550,000 people, saw its homicide rate jump from 59 to 99 in the space of one year — a stunning 70 percent increase.
City officials here have been in a rhetorical frenzy trying to cope with the surge in killings, culminating in San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly’s recent failed ballot measure to raid The City’s coffers for $30 million over three years to fund an unknown number of homicide prevention programs. And Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi has suggested changing the police district station boundaries — even though many recent murders have taken place in areas where police patrols were just a few blocks away.
But a little perspective goes a long way. So far this year, 45 people have been killed by another person in San Francisco, three more than at the same time last year, when 96 homicides were reported. But that doesn’t mean there will be more murders by the end of this year. In 2004, when there were 88 homicides at year’s end, the midyear figure was a whopping 53 killings.
So the figures can be misleading and can also obscure some successes The City has achieved in trying to reduce what police officials consider certain types of “preventable’’ homicides. Indeed, lost in all the statistics is that police have actually been effective in reducing what they refer to as “black-on- black gang’’ homicides, an area that has led to some of the record numbers of killings in other cities.
Two years ago, the Police Department reported 27 black gang-related homicides, a figure that dropped to 11 in 2005 and so far this year stands at five. It’s a shift worth noting because it’s an area that the department has targeted — by doubling the number of gang task force members and focusing on weapons and narcotics trafficking in a number of high-crime areas. To that end they’ve been greatly helped by U.S. Attorney Kevin Ryan, who has used the broad powers of his office, including the federal grand jury system, to indict known gang members on a number of charges ranging from murder to racketeering to gun possession.
“It has had a downward effect on the most preventable homicides,’’ said Deputy Chief Morris Tabak, who heads the department’s investigations bureau. “A lot of the homicides we’ve seen in the past are not occurring because the problem goes away when you take the known troubles off the street.’’
Of course, it can’t stop a lot of other random homicides, a baffling trend that experts say is linked to the availability of guns and lax sentences given to repeat violent offenders. In Milwaukee, where the homicide rate jumped from 88 in 2004 to 122 last year, police said 45 of the killings were due to domestic arguments. In Houston last year, one-third of the city’s 336 murders were related to “disputes.’’
Yet as Tabak says, it’s virtually impossible to prevent crimes of passion, such as late-night bar fights or unexpected street altercations. And when a young woman throws three babies off a San Francisco pier, as Lashaun Harris allegedly did last year, it’s just another horrible event contributing to a city’s homicide total.
So the statistics hardly tell the whole story, but they do show why even effective police work can get lost in the numbers. San Francisco police confiscated nearly 1,200 assault weapons last year, a rate of almost 100 per month — which should give an indication of just how easy it is to purchase a firearm. And even though the homicide rate jumped at the end of the year, San Francisco still had one of the lowest murder rates per capita of any American city — 1 per 8,333 residents. That figure placed The City far behind the startling numbers recorded in Richmond, Oakland and the less-than-gritty sprawl of Sacramento.
It’s easy for the headlines to blur reality. Every homicide is tragic in it’s own way to a whole host of people. Yet if San Francisco had 75 this year, it would be considered a normal year — and given the trend in crime nationwide, possibly even a good one.
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (415) 359-2663.