Homicides in DC and the US-The Urban Institute-DC Public Safety Radio

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Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2013/07/homicides-in-dc-and-the-us-the-urban-institute-dc-public-safety/

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes, back at our microphone. Ladies and gentlemen, John Roman, he is a Senior Fellow with The Urban Institute – www.urban.org. www.urban.org. We’re here to talk about homicides in the District of Columbia and throughout the country. There’s been, generally speaking, a heck of a decrease not only in the District of Columbia but throughout the United States. I want to read three quick paragraphs from an Associated Press article, and then have a discussion with John. “The crack epidemic that began in the 1980s ushered in a wave of bloodletting in the nation’s capital and a death toll that ticked upward daily. Dead bodies, sometimes several in a night, had homicide detectives hustling between crime scenes and earned Washington unwelcome monikers such as the nation’s ‘murder capital.’  “At the time, some feared the murder rate might ascend to more frightening heights but after approaching 500 slayings a year in the early 1990s, the annual rate has gradually declined to the point that the city is now on the verge of a once-unthinkable milestone. The number of 2012 killings in the District of Columbia stands at 78 and is on pace to finish lower than 100 for the first time since 1963, records show.” Then it goes on to talk about other cities, the fact that there have been generally-speaking declines. We have had some increases such as Chicago. It’s fascinating, John, that generally-speaking across the board throughout the United States, but especially in the nation’s capital, homicides have decreased, and decreased to levels that we did not expect. The question is why.

John Roman: That’s a great question. If you are 40 years old, you’ve never lived in a safer country, and I think a lot of people find that sort of hard to believe, so I think the first step is in convincing people that this decline in violence in the United States is real, and it is, but it’s not just the District of Columbia, it’s not just the United States, it’s the whole world – Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Europe have also seen these declines, so there’s some clues in all of that.

Len Sipes: But isn’t that the norm that ordinarily, you’re not going to get the same increase in the level of decreases but within the Western industrialized world, whether it’s New Zealand, or as some people would consider Japan part of the Western industrialized world, Australia, Europe, Canada – ordinarily crime rises or decreases not at the same volume but the trend lines are generally the same.

John Roman: That’s true; the trend lines are the same. What’s different here though is that if you look at the top explanations that most people apply to the violence decline, what you see is that in the United States, it’s about rising prison populations, mass incarceration, and it’s about the crack epidemic; and if you look at England and Canada and Australia, they didn’t experience either of those things. So for the trend lines to stay the same even when the experiences about how they’re trying to fight violence epidemic were so different sort of really has led to a lot of head-scratching in the criminology community.

Len Sipes: Okay, we’re going to launch way beyond homicides, then, because people have been talking about this for years. I remember leaving the Police Department decades ago, going through my first criminology classes, and having the professors saying, “Do you understand that what goes up in the United States goes up in Germany, goes up in Australia, goes up in New Zealand, goes up in Japan, and comes down basically – again, not at the same levels?  All these other countries have had – well, the United States generally speaking at one time had much higher rates of violent crime than other countries but the trend lines are basically the same. So, what is explaining that? So the explanation for rising and falling crime is more Western industrialized than it is just for the United States.

John Roman: I think that’s right. I think that pattern still holds true, and I want to come back to mass incarceration the crack epidemic and talk about what it means here.

Len Sipes: Sure.

John Roman: But when you look at international patterns, I think what you’ve seen is over the last 25 years, Graham Farrell, who is a professor at Simon Fraser University, wrote a really compelling paper that said, “What’s changed is security, private security and public security, that it’s so much easier to secure your possessions, to secure your business, to secure your car in ways that make it very difficult for them to be taken. It makes people less attractive as targets to be robbed, which is the taking of something by force or threat of force off your person, or have theft of a vehicle or a possession, and that’s driving a lot of the crime decline.” And what Graham would say is, “What’s really driving the crime decline is the decline in motor vehicles thefts.” So take New York City —

Len Sipes: That’s interesting.

John Roman: Yeah, this is great. It’s a great theory. I think it’s partially true. I don’t think it gets the whole thing.

Len Sipes: Okay.

John Roman: But in New York City in 1990, there were over 100,000 vehicles stolen. People had the sign in their windows saying, you know, “No radio,” or never leave it unlocked. By last year there were 11,000, so from over 100,000 to 11,000. It’s a 90% reduction in motor vehicle theft, and it’s two things. It’s a crackdown on insurance fraud where people would report their car stolen when it wasn’t, and it’s much better technology to detect stolen motor vehicles through license plates readers, through low jack electronic stuff, and so what that means is there’s a lot fewer cars to steal to use to get to a crime or to get away from a crime.

Len Sipes: That is so interesting. I mean, my head is exploding because I want to get to homicides, and we can move in a thousand different directions with this discussion. Homicides ordinarily are a proxy for crime across the board, correct? So ordinarily if homicides are up, crime is up. If homicides are down, crime is down. That’s generally-speaking the way it’s been, right?

John Roman: That’s right. So there’s four kinds of homicides. There is domestic violence; there is parents killing infants, infanticide; there is strangers killing strangers; and there is —

Len Sipes: The non-stranger —

John Roman: — non-stranger stuff, so gangs, crews, beefs within the crew as much as beef between crews; and I think it’s really that stranger homicide that is what people are really afraid of, and it’s sort of a declining percentage of all homicides, right, and so that’s really the key indicator there. So anytime there’s an assault, there’s a chance it could become a homicide. Any time there’s a robbery, I take my gun out and tell you I want your wallet, there’s a chance that could become a homicide. So it’s really those stranger-on-stranger events that are really, that’s the indicator, and they’re way down.

Len Sipes: But any time there is an encounter, there is a chance for a homicide. I mean, I sat in front of a group of 100 kids being adjudicated for homicide at the Baltimore city jail, and we had long extended discussions with them, and they were basically saying that these were all heat of passion crimes where there was a perceived insult, and they just could not take it one final time, and the person did this in front of his girlfriend, his mother, his friends, whatever, and he felt that he had to do what he had to do. I mean, sometimes we have these hugely complex understandings of homicide. Sometimes it can be as simple as a perceived insult.

John Roman: Right. So it’s interesting, if you look – there’s two ways I can go here – but different populations respond have different drivers of homicide, right. For white-on-white homicides, it’s almost always something other than an argument going bad. It’s domestic violence, it’s kid killing kids. In African-American homicides, about half the time it’s a disagreement that escalates into a homicide so it’s got different causes there, and this is where the security hypothesis, I think then it sort of doesn’t work really well. You can say, “Well, there are fewer people stealing cars and fewer people possessing stolen cars, and so there are fewer getaway cars, and that could mean fewer drive-bys, for instance.” And I think there’s some of that, but there is clearly other stuff going on.

Len Sipes: Well, the beefs that go down and end up in homicides, they seem to be getting fewer and fewer. I think that’s the most impressive thing. People are using more restraint in terms of settling those beefs, and I’m sort of wondering why that is.

John Roman: Okay, so there’s a lot of —

Len Sipes: I’m asking you a lot of question that you probably can’t answer but I’m going to ask them anyway.

John Roman: So what I’m going to say in response to that is an opinion that’s informed by data but I don’t think there’s really any way to do a data analysis that would really tease this apart. I mean, the world is so complex when you talk about human behavior and when you talk about rare events like homicides. They’re extremely rare events, right? – 82 in a city of 615,000, that’s a pretty rare event but still way too much. So a lot of people propose that the end of the crack epidemic had a big effect.

Len Sipes: The 1980s.

John Roman: Right, and I think there’s something too that you don’t have the open-air drug markets you used to have, which is a place where you’re bringing together people and money, and they’re under the influence, and all of those things together are really conducive to violence, and a lot of that has gone away. One of the primary reasons why it’s gone away is the cell phone. You don’t have to go an open-air drug market. You can call your dealer and meet him somewhere, and so you don’t have large numbers of people gathering in a volatile environment, so that I think is an explanation.  And the most controversial one is of course mass incarceration, so from 1980 until 2009 —

Len Sipes: Huge increases.

John Roman: Right, quadrupling, right, four times as many people in prison.

Len Sipes: Highest rate of incarceration in the world.

John Roman: In the world – 2 million. You’re talking about, if you’re an African-American between the age of 20 and 29, you’ve got something like a 1-in-8 chance of going to prison at some point in your life. I mean, that’s just crazy. So a lot of people have posited that having all of those people in prison has reduced crime, and I think there’s an argument to be made for that, and the argument sort of goes like this: if only 1 out of 100 people who you incarcerate are the really high-volume dangerous people who do 25, 50, 100 crimes a year, and you’ve incarcerated 20,000 of those people, you’re talking about like a million violent events that you’ve prevented by incarcerating them, so I think that is part of the explanation.  I can think of no less efficient mechanism to reduce violence than prison. It is enormously expensive. Most of the people who are incarcerated are not violent, won’t be violent, you haven’t really prevented any crime. You’ve just spent a fortune, right. There’s a study that came out today that said that they changed the rules about the disparity between prison sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, and they retroactively reduced the sentences of lots of prisoners by an average of 29 months, and they estimated that that change alone will save half-a-billion dollars, right? And so we’re not preventing much crime with all of this incarceration because we’re incarcerating way too many people who aren’t going to be violent but it probably does explain a little bit of the decline.

Len Sipes: Washington, D.C., when I was working here – this is before the last 10 years with CSOSA, and I spent 14 years in the state of Maryland, and then before that I was with the National Crime Prevention Council – I can remember back in the ’80s, getting out, working late, trying to catch the last subway available so I could get home to Baltimore, and literally walking in the middle of the street – walking down the yellow line because there were so many homeless and it was just, Washington, D.C., just had such a reputation for violence, it was affecting business, it was affecting construction, it was affecting tourism, it was affecting everything. Washington, D.C., is basically a changed city, a dramatically changed city.

John Roman: A dramatically changed city, and I think the lessons about how it changed are really instructive in thinking about why it’s changing in other cities and why it’s not changing in some other cities.

Len Sipes: All right, I do want to get to that, yes.

John Roman: So in 2000, I moved to Capitol Hill, right, so I lived six blocks from the U.S. Capitol Dome and the Supreme Court, and I would walk home from the Verizon Center, which is about a mile-and-a-half away, and it was entirely brown fields and boarded-up buildings, and it was a scary place.

Len Sipes: Yep, I remember it well.

John Roman: If you did the same walk today, it would take a lot longer because it’s so developed with new condos and new stores and new restaurants, and you cannot find a boarded-up house on Capitol Hill where there used to be one on every street. If you go down H Street, which was really the most thriving African-American commercial corridor, it was about 13 blocks long, and it was really devastated by the riots in the ’60s, and in 2000, you know, 12-block corridor had 600 vacant or abandoned properties.

Len Sipes: And that section of H Street hadn’t recovered yet.

John Roman: It had not recovered yet, and 40 are now vacant.

Len Sipes: So basically we’re saying that a ton of money was poured into the District of Columbia that realigned the place economically.

John Roman: And the question is why, why did it happen then, right? Why didn’t it happen in 1990 or 1980, and I think the answer is sort of three-fold. One is that you had some brave people, like Abe Pollin, who built the Verizon Center at 7th and F, which was abandoned warehouses and boarded-up buildings, and he poured his own dollars into the city, and that was a signal, right? That was a very strong signal that people were willing to invest in the city.

Len Sipes: A symbolic image.

John Roman: A symbolic image, and then there’s, you know, First Movers, and so people started moving into communities they hadn’t previously been in, and then you have this wave of immigration, right, and I think underestimate how good it is for city to have immigrants. Immigrant neighborhoods, if you look at the average rates of poverty and you think about how much crime you would expect to see given how poor they are, you see much lower rates of crime in immigrant neighborhoods than you see in native neighborhoods with the same demographics. They bring with them energy and a cohesion that doesn’t exist in native communities, people who grew up there.  So they come in, and then what happened here is there was a wave of immigration in the ’80s into the city, and people forget now but there were riots in the early part of the 1990s in Columbia Heights, which is the part of the town that was really the focus of a lot of this immigration, because the police weren’t prepared to interact with a community that had different norms. The riot actually began because the police arrested some young men who were drinking beer on their own stew stoop, which is illegal but not where they came from it wasn’t.  So the police department really learned from that, and they changed how they related to the immigrant population, and this city became a very friendly place for immigrants, and that has brought with it a lot of safety in areas that weren’t safe before. So that’s, you know, improving police, immigration, and as these two things happened sort of in concert, you get this First Movers strong signal, you get some migration of people from close-in neighborhoods to place like Capitol Hill and a little further out into parts of the city that have been traditionally non-white.  And then you get sort of this virtuous cycle where all these things sort of build and create momentum and that sort of spurred the economic development and the gentrification. And so let’s talk gentrification because it’s controversial, right?

Len Sipes: Yes. Yes, it is.

John Roman: A lot of people think gentrification is a really bad thing for a city because it changes its historical makeup because it forces poor people to move, it dislocates people, it changes the culture of a place – and that’s all true. But what it also brings with it is enormous safety, and it can bring some wealth to people who were poor, right? If you own a house on Capitol Hill that your grandma owned, she probably paid, you know, $20,000 for it, and you probably sold it for half a million.

Len Sipes: Right, and you know, half a million, it’s more like $800,000 or $900,000.

John Roman: Exactly, and so you have some wealth generation. And then the other thing that happened at the same time at the end of the 1990s was that there were a lot of public housing projects around the city, that there was a federal program called Hope Six, and it was a program to tear down dense, public housing and replace it with garden-style apartments, and that happened in a number of cities, parts of this city and other cities – which we’ll get to in a minute – and that I think dislocated a lot of people, a lot of them came back, but the places where they went, they didn’t take the violence with them. The violence was about that place that had poisoned it, and when they left, they were safer and the place itself became safer.

Len Sipes: That is so interesting. Our guest today, ladies and gentlemen, is John Roman. He is a Senior Fellow at The Urban Institute – www.urban.org. www.urban.org. I sat and watched a live feed as John did a dissertation to a variety of media throughout the country on research that he and Urban had done on homicides, D.C. homicides and throughout the rest of the country, and this is a topic that you can barely scratch the surface of within a half-an-hour.  John, I want you to come back to continue this conversation, but in the say 13 minutes we have left, all right, it’s a very complex set of circumstances that gradually, through osmosis it almost sounds, not necessarily through planning but through osmosis, gradually builds to a point where you have a much safer city here in Washington, D.C. We’ve seen lots of cities throughout the United States that have also accomplished that moniker of a much, much safer city; but then we have a whole slew of cities that have not reached that point – Chicago, big increases in terms of homicide, Baltimore continues to have a homicide problem.  You may find decreases in certain cities throughout the country but residences there can’t taste it, touch it, feel it, and smell it. In the District of Columbia and in New York City, you can really get a sense as to the incredible changes in terms of how safe those cities have become. In other cities, not so much.

John Roman: Right, so let me put some numbers around this because that’s what I do. In 1990, if you rank order the top 25 biggest American cities from most crime to least crime, you would see Washington, D.C. at the top of that list, right?

Len Sipes: Right.

John Roman: And you would see New York City and Dallas in the top ten, for instance, and you would see Las Vegas at the bottom of the list. And if you go fast-forward to 2000 and you look at the rank orderings, every one of those 25 cities experienced a crime decline, and the rankings didn’t really change much, and that’s led people like Steve Levitt, the economist who wrote Freakonomics, which I suspect a lot of people have heard of, to posit that it was really national phenomenon, that whatever was happening was happening everywhere. It was better and worse. Some places it was down 20% homicide, some places it was down 80%. Then between 2000, if you rerank everybody in 2010, you see really big changes, right?

Len Sipes: Right.

John Roman: New York drops 8 spots on a ranking of just 25.

Len Sipes: Phenomenal decrease!

John Roman: Huge! Dallas drops 8 spots, and then you see other places like Memphis and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore that you mentioned moving up the rankings, and so what is it about places like San Diego and D.C. and Houston and Dallas that differentiates?

Len Sipes: And New York, yeah?

John Roman: And New York City – I’m going to put New York City aside for just a second because I want to come back to it.

Len Sipes: All right.

John Roman: What differentiates those cities? – And this is also true for New York. And I think what differentiates them I that prosperity is more diverse across places in those cities, right? D.C. is interesting. It used to be almost perfectly segregated by Rock Creek.

Len Sipes: By Rock Creek Park.

John Roman: That’s correct, where it was white on the west side and African American on the east side, and that is not true. D.C. is a far more diverse place. There are far more neighborhoods that have a mix of people by race and ethnicity, and if you look at a map of New York City, one of the big advantages New York City has is it’s always been a pretty diverse place, right, and there’s lots of Hispanics and African Americans in Queens and Brooklyn, and now an increasing number of whites in some neighborhoods, and so it’s a pretty diverse place. It’s still more segregated than I think anybody would like to see it but there aren’t like big areas of the city where you’re never going to see somebody of a different race.  There are big areas of Chicago that are almost perfectly segregated. There are big areas of Detroit, there are big areas in Philadelphia, right, and what people are beginning to speculate is this crime decline is about places, and it’s about economic segregation.

Len Sipes: That’s interesting. That is really interesting.

John Roman: And one of the things that I’ve argued is if you can have less wealthy people living next to more wealthy people, in effect it vaccinates people who would have been at risk of being poisoned in the violence epidemics when they roll through, like we had around crack cocaine. And so if you can find ways to keep people who live here while you have gentrifiers coming in, it creates sort of this vaccine and it makes lots of places safe that otherwise would be less safe.

Len Sipes: Economic and ethnic and racial integration is paying off in terms of stabilizing larger cities, that’s what you’re saying.

John Roman: I think that’s right, and I think there have a number of studies that have come out recently and they’ve shown really – and it’s hard to talk about this on the radio – but really interesting visualizations of color-coded block-by-block, how likely you are to have a neighbor who is of a different race or a different socio-economic status, and you can really see it, and it’s really vivid, you know, how much integration there is in these cities, and it’s not a coincidence that the cities that are more integrated across all of these things are the ones that are moving down in the rankings, and the cities like Chicago and Baltimore that are very segregated are not experiencing the same declines in violence.

Len Sipes: But a bit part of this, at the same time, would be the efforts on the part of the criminal justice system, but I understand that there is a huge criminological debate that would take us the next five years to talk about, whether policing is effective or whether it’s not effective, whether incarceration is effective or it’s not effective. We talked about that a little while ago – parole and probation, the impact of it, drug treatment; I mean the whole spectrum of what it is that we do in the criminal justice system, so I’ll ask you an impossible question. Talking about gentrification, talking about economic, racial, and ethnic integration, I understand that. Does the criminal justice system have a real role to play in terms of holding down crime rates or crime totals?

John Roman: I said bad things about our sentencing policy, right, which I think is really misguided, but I have good things to say about all the other actors in the system. I think all the other actors in the system have gotten substantially better over the last 20 years. So the story begins with this guy who works for the state of New York whose name is Martinson, who famously in 1974 reviewed everything that was available at the time about how effective rehabilitation programs and corrections were, and famously concluded that nothing works in rehabilitation.

Len Sipes: He’ll say he didn’t say that but I understand, but the bottom-line message was nothing works.

John Roman: Right, and I think that that “nothing works” message really dominated the national debate for 20 years.

Len Sipes: Yes, it did.

John Roman: And I think it was only in the ’90s, it was really – I think a lot of it starts with Janet Reno in Miami, where she’s the prosecutor in 1989, and her city is overwhelmed with criminals involved in the drug trade but she doesn’t have the resources to catch everybody and lock everybody up, so she creates this thing called Drug Court, and she treats people and says, “Look, what we’re going to do is get people into recovery because when you get people into recovery, some of them will not commit the criminal acts they would commit if they were drug-seeking or high,” and it really seemed to work. – And now these Drug Courts are, you know —

Len Sipes: All over the place —

John Roman: — everywhere.

Len Sipes: — and uniformly successful.

John Roman: And they’re successful, and they’re in every medium to large county and city in the United States, and they’ve spawned a whole generation of sort of spin-offs that are trying to address other problems between alcoholics who get DWIs, and returning veterans who have PTSD, and a whole range of people, and we’ve been much more successful in treating the underlying causes that make people turn to crime, and we’ve done it in the court system, and we’ve done it may be less effectively in the correctional system. We’re doing it much better for people under community supervision, and I think it’s really mattered.

Len Sipes: And we’ve excluded a lot of lower-risk people so we could focus our resources on the higher-risk people. What about the law enforcement side?

John Roman: So the law enforcement story is really interesting. So the New York story really was about disorder, and the idea that places that looked really disorderly are more dangerous. So famously there were the squeegee men, and when you came in over the bridge or the tunnel, they’d be there at the traffic light, and they’d break off your antenna if you didn’t pay then two bucks to —

Len Sipes: They’d graffiti everything else.

John Roman: Right, to spit on your windshield and, you know. And so a lot of places went for this real hardcore law-and-order model, and those guys went to jail, and if you jumped the turnstiles you went to jail, and now they do stop-and-frisk, right? So if you’re carrying something and you’re not doing anything suspicious other than mainly being black or brown, of which a lot of people thing is really bad policy, they’re going to frisk you.  Other places like Washington, D.C., have really gone the other way, and especially under Chief Lanier here. Now what she’s done is she’s moved into a really proactive community policing model where she really wants to see – she wants people in a neighborhood to trust her officers, to talk to them, to tell them about beefs before they happen, to be willing to say, “Yes, I saw somebody shoot this other –.”

Len Sipes: So they can get the information they need to stop crime.

John Roman: That’s exactly right, and then around the country there are these other models, they call them like “the interruptor models.” There’s a documentary out now called “The Interruptors” that I would tell people to go see. It’s quite good. And what these people are, they’re people who work with gangs and crews to get in the middle of beefs and to end the cycle of retaliation, because it’s the cycle of retaliation that really is where the violence occurs, and so they get in the middle of it and they try and stop it. – And especially in places like D.C., the police have been more and more open to having these people involved, and are willing to give them the information that they need to get into the middle of these things and stop it.

Len Sipes: More open to a collaborative approach by everybody involved in the criminal justice system. We’ve got a minute left. Homicides have gone down tremendously in Washington, D.C., violent crime has gone down tremendously. Homicides have gone down in the vast majority of cities in the United States, so has violence crime. What percentage of it is societal, what percentage of it is the criminal justice system?

John Roman: Wow.

Len Sipes: Within one minute.

John Roman: Okay, so I would say it’s at least two-thirds societal and maybe a third interventions, and I think that’s good because I think the part that’s the criminal justice system intervention is increasing and the part that’s societal I think is decreasing as a percentage of the explanation.

Len Sipes: But somehow some way we as a society, whether we had this conversation with ourselves or not, whether we realized we were having this conversation with ourselves or not, somehow society has come to grips with its own problem and solved its own problem outside of the criminal justice system.

John Roman: And I think the group that deserves the most credit for it is the one that gets the most blame, and that’s the African American community because they deserve the credit for it. That is a community that said, at the height of the crack epidemic, “This is destroying our communities,” and they are a population that is by race the least likely to be consumers of illegal substances, even though they’re disproportionately the ones going to prison for drug possession and sales, the least likely to use it, and the least likely to tolerate open-air drug markets, and more and more engaged with community policing to help make their cities safer.

Len Sipes: As somebody who’s been reading the African American press for a quarter of a century, it strikes me as interesting that they are sometimes the most conservative voices for the issue of crime control, the ones who are crying out the most for interventions, contrary to some critics. So the bottom line is that society can have a wonderful way of controlling itself outside of the criminal justice system, but the criminal justice system does supply that degree of stabilization to allows them to do that. Am I in the ballpark?

John Roman: You’re exactly on target. So the societal explanation is about places. Places poison people if we let them. The criminal justice system is about helping people achieve their potential.

Len Sipes: John Roman, Senior Fellow at The Urban Institute – www.urban.org. www.urban.org. We could go for five hours, John. I love you by the microphones. I learn more from you in a half-an-hour than in two criminological degrees.  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We really appreciate your comments, we even appreciate your criticisms, and we want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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