True or false: From 1993 to 2013 there has been nearly a 50% increase in homicides in the City of Milwaukee.
The answer is…. False! Actually, during those years there has been a 35% decrease in homicides in the city, from 164 to 106. That decrease has been uneven but steady.
Now, if you got the answer wrong, you are not alone. Most of my criminal justice students got the question wrong too. One of the reasons why we so often believe that homicides are on the increase is because of all the media attention paid to this issue. Homicides grab our attention, they capture our imagination, our morbid interests. The media reflects and perpetuates this phenomenon. We must be careful in drawing conclusions about homicides based on media portrayals of them.
Here are a few facts about homicide, homicide in Milwaukee in particular:
First, the media doesn’t pay equal attention to all homicides. What happened at the Azana Spa and the Sikh Temple grab the headlines but are extremely uncommon. Like plane crashes, they are rare but horrific. Truth be told, most homicides involve a young African American male offender and a young African American male victim. Although these homicides are tragic too, most often they barely make a ripple in the news.
Second, the overwhelming majority of homicides in Milwaukee are as a result of shootings, and an argument. In recent years, guns were used in about three quarters of Milwaukee’s homicides. When a homicide doesn’t involve a shooting, the media shows a lot more interest; consider the recent case where the pregnant mother was killed for her unborn baby.
Third, the media takes special notice when there are a lot of murders. For example, in the first five days in 2012, there were five homicides in the city. The media was all over it. From June through August of last year there were 40 homicides in Milwaukee. Again, the media, the community, and politicians demanded answers. Not long ago when there were 122 homicides in the city, the media went into a feeding frenzy. TIME magazine wrote in an article “It’s as if Milwaukee Wisconsin had reverted to a state of lethal chaos.” Why? Well, the previous year there were only 88 homicides in the city. We must be aware that year-to-year comparisons in homicides are nearly completely meaningless, multi-year trends are much more informative.
Fourth, part of the reason for year-to-year variation is that there are about 5 non-fatal shootings for every fatal one in Milwaukee. The difference between a homicide and a non-fatal shooting is often the aim of the shooter or the promptness of medical attention.
Fifth, homicides in particular, and predatory crime in general, are not a random phenomenon. Homicides tend to occur… not always…. but tend to occur in certain areas, at certain times, and involve victims and offenders who share certain characteristics and lifestyles.
Finally, it is inaccurate to think that the police have complete control over homicides, and other crimes for that matter. The police cannot control most of the things that give rise to most homicides and other crimes. As a result, the police should not receive all the credit when homicides go down, nor should they receive the blame when homicides go up.
So, the bottom line here is this: don’t draw conclusions about homicides based solely on media portrayals. After all, did you know that homicides in Milwaukee have gone down by 35% in the last two decades?
Lake Effect essayist Steve Brandl is a professor of criminal justice at UWM’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare.