- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2012

Every city has a number.

For Baltimore in recent years, it’s 200. For Chicago, it’s 500. And in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, it’s 300. In the District, the number is 100.

It’s a threshold for the year’s homicides. But more importantly, it’s a gauge of success or failure that often creates or perpetuates an urban identity.

After two decades of generally declining homicide levels, the District recorded fewer than 100 killings in 2012 for the first time since the Kennedy administration. And while overall crime has increased and an indiscriminate pattern of violent robberies persists, the diminishing homicide total has provided validation for a city seeking to shed its entrenched reputation as the nation’s “murder capital” and consolidate the fragile gains that come with a rising population and a resilient local economy.

It’s a struggle that persists in similar fashion in cities across the nation.

“Homicide is a major leading indicator of major cities,” said Jens Ludwig, professor and director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. “It is the thing that is most damaging in terms of driving businesses and people out of a city.”

The “number,” which varies dramatically from city to city, starts as a goal or a fear. It can be imposed by politicians, special interest groups or editorial writers. But it can change the way the residents of a city perceive their home.

In the District, the number 100 came from police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who says she has thought it was attainable since she was appointed in 2006. From her first year as chief, when there were 181 killings, it would require cutting the number of homicides by nearly half.

With just 88 killings reported in 2012, the District met her goal.

Around the country

Gang violence and drug wars turned the streets of major American cities into shooting galleries during the 1990s, and murder rates swelled to record levels. Homicides topped 2,200 in New York City in 1990, totaled 482 in the District in 1991, and exceeded 1,100 in Los Angeles in 1992.

And even though homicides are not a complete picture of a city’s crime scene, it’s the statistic that resonates most with residents.

“When it comes for tracking crimes levels, homicides are what Americans tend to be most impressed with,” said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Gary LaFree, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, said the prevalent opinion once was that crime was “something that happened like an earthquake. You couldn’t do anything about it.” Throughout the 1990s, curbing violent crime became a national priority, and the number of killings in big cities nationwide tumbled as the crack cocaine epidemic waned.

In addition to the District’s declines, New York City was prepared for its lowest total since the 1970s, with 414 killings reported through Friday. Los Angeles had recorded 297 homicides.

But the collateral effects of the violence created ongoing problems for big-city mayors.

Mr. Ludwig cited research by colleague, Steve Levitt, author of the book Freakonomics, on the decimating effect.

“Every homicide reduces a city population by 70,” he said, referring to residents’ desires to move to locales they consider safe. Comparatively, for every other type of crime recorded in a city, the population shrinks by one person, Mr. Ludwig said.

“Getting the homicide problem under control is particularly important to mayors who want to grow their city’s tax base,” he said.

In some cases, setting goals and choosing numbers hasn’t worked out as intended.

As mayor of Baltimore from 1999 to 2007, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley pledged to reduce homicides to fewer than 175 a year — a goal that the city has yet to achieve. The city dropped below 200 homicides last year for the first time since 1977, only to again surge past the benchmark figure this year with 215 killings as of Friday.

When first elected mayor of Philadelphia in 2007, Michael Nutter also made promises to reduce homicides in the City of Brotherly Love by 30 percent to 50 percent. The reduction goals were echoed by Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, the former chief in the District, who made note of aiming to cut homicides to less than 300. But a violent 2012 sent the number of killings soaring, opening public officials to criticism when the homicide total raced past 300 in November to 329 as of Monday.

In Chicago, the number 500 took on significance for the wrong reason. The city recorded 512 homicides in 2008 before three years of declines. A violent 2012 was capped Friday when Superintendent Garry F. McCarthy acknowledged with a public statement that the city had logged its 500th killing, calling the milestone a “tragic number.”

Perhaps wary of the political liability of making such promises after New Orleans failed to meet Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas’ goal of even a 5 percent homicide decrease in 2011, officials left any numerical benchmark out of a comprehensive plan developed for last year to reduce the city’s homicide rate.

“It is very common to see this kind of goal-setting. They don’t always reach their goal and that runs the risk of them being called a failure,” Mr. Fox said.

It’s also a risk that makes Chief Lanier’s pledge all the more notable.

“You wouldn’t have heard a police chief saying that 20 years ago,” Mr. LaFree said.

An improbable goal

By openly voicing a goal of recording fewer than 100 homicides in a year, Chief Lanier acknowledges she took a risk.

Her first two years in office, the homicide total increased, from 169 in 2006 when she was appointed to 181 in 2007 and 186 in 2008.

“Each year that we didn’t hit it, someone wrote about it and then people took shots at me for it,” she said. “But you can’t let them change the vision.”

During most of her 23 years with the Metropolitan Police Department, the benchmark could have been seen as an improbable if not laughable goal.

In 1991, the year after Chief Lanier joined the department as a patrol officer, the District topped out at its highest-ever murder tally with 482 homicides. The murder rate — the number of homicides divided by the city’s population — stood at 80.6 killings per 100,000 residents, a staggering figure among the country’s big cities.

Even 10 years ago, the homicide total was 264, according to data from the FBI, while the murder rate was about 46.

“It’s been troubling my whole career,” Chief Lanier said. “For so long of being the ‘murder capital,’ that’s bothered me.”

In addition to the loss of life, the police chief said she was sensitive to the implications of a violent city.

“The national perception, the perception of others, it’ll keep people from coming here, keep businesses from flourishing,” Chief Lanier said. “Because that homicide number was so prominent for so many years, I think it has started to change the perception now when they see dramatic reductions with homicides and other crimes.”

The city’s population, at 606,000 in 1990, dropped to about 554,000 in 2004. The number of residents has rebounded to 632,323, according to census estimates released last month. While much of the growth can be attributed to young professionals attracted to a regional economy — anchored by the federal government — that remained relatively stable in the face of a national economic recession, homicide levels have been less of a deterrent for new residents.

Based on homicide totals through Sunday, the District’s murder rate would stand at about 13.8.

While the chances of being murdered are far lower than being a victim of another type of crime, making clear homicide reductions was an important step in stemming residents’ fears and changing perceptions.

“The scariest thing for people in the community really is the number of homicides,” Chief Lanier said. “And, really, it should be the most important because you can’t get a life back once it’s lost.”

Public perception about crime doesn’t always match the direction crime trends are headed because residents often focus on the particularly grisly crimes that make headlines, criminologists said. As a result, police might feel more pressure to reduce homicides than other types of crime.

“If you could have homicides go down 20 percent but overall crime go up, you’d probably take it,” Mr. Fox said.

That scenario is exactly what played out in the District last year. Homicides were reduced by 20 percent, from 108 in 2011 to 88 as of Monday. Meanwhile, overall crime is up by about 4 percent, according to the latest available crime data from the police department.

New goals

As several cities have fallen out of step with the national trend and recorded homicide spikes last year, Chief Lanier emphasized the importance of monitoring the cause of those increases so the District does not also fall victim.

Among the measures most successful at preventing homicides and violent crime, Chief Lanier credits officers’ development of sources and information about violent offenders which has enabled the department to be in place before violence begins and target the individuals most likely to be involved. Working with residents to target offenders wreaking havoc on neighborhoods proved far more effective than targeting the neighborhoods themselves.

“Hot-spot policing was not as effective for us in D.C. because we alienated a lot of people in the neighborhood that we need to work with us,” she said.

But the success the city has seen in achieving fewer than 100 homicides last year also prompts the question of where it can go from here.

“Once you cross benchmarks it’s important to stop and figure out what the next goal is,” said John Roman, a senior fellow at the D.C.-based Urban Institute. “Is it no homicides of youth under 18 from here? Is that attainable? I don’t know. Is it 50 homicides?”

Reducing gun violence and robberies will both remain priorities for the department in 2013, but Chief Lanier may also be sizing up her next hurdle — one that might seem as improbable as her goal of 100 did several years ago.

“For a city our size, there shouldn’t be more than 50 homicides,” she said.

Economic development booming in many quarters of the city should continue to promote the “virtuous cycle” of lowering crime rates, said Mr. Roman, pointing to the changes the development around Verizon Center brought to Gallery Place as one such example. But at a certain threshold, it becomes a challenge to maintain a low homicide total, much less realize further declines.

“The lower the homicide numbers go, the more apt they are go in the wrong direction,” Mr. Fox said. “Homicide numbers are not going to go to zero in a city of any size.”