Our Dead-End Approach to Homicide

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Our regional crime problem is depressing investment, property values and retail sales, and increasing insurance premiums and tax burdens. The Post has reported on this phenomenon, but an analysis of the problem that will mobilize our civic leadership has remained elusive.

Notice, for example, how the police chiefs from the jurisdictions with the most homicides explain the trends ["D.C. Area Slayings Climbed in 2005," front page, Jan. 2].

A decline in homicides? D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey credits the police. An increase in homicides? Prince George's Police Chief Melvin C. High blames social conditions, such as population density. In other words, good news, the police take credit; bad news, they duck the blame.

But the chiefs are half right -- police activity and social conditions do affect the crime rate. During the 15 years that The Post compared the District's and Prince George's homicide numbers, as population declined in the District and rose in Prince George's, one would expect the number of homicides to fall and rise, respectively, if other factors held steady. However, the District's figures have barely changed, and the killings are soaring in Prince George's.

Unfortunately, D.C. police have solved only a third of the city's 2005 homicides, way below the national average. With more effective policing -- starting with more effective management -- the homicide total could have been lower. For example, with the medical examiner's backlog of unfinished autopsies topping 1,000 cases for several years [front page, Dec. 31], shouldn't the police chief have mobilized the mayor, the D.C. Council and the public and solved this problem long ago?

Homicide does indeed reflect social conditions, as the Prince George's police chief said. But the view that increasing population density leads to increased homicide is an urban myth that was exposed decades ago by Haverford College's Roger Lane. Throughout America's increasing urbanization, the homicide rate generally declined until the 1960s. Increased national sobriety, industrialization and greater public school enrollment were factors in the decline. Social forces requiring more self-control and associated with urbanization reduced violence.

Contemporary murder rates reflect many social conditions -- teenage pregnancy and the breakdown of families; untreated mental illness in a struggling health care system; inadequate juvenile justice in an incompetent criminal justice system; a violence-worshiping popular culture; the poison of racism and sexism; widespread attitudes of resentment, entitlement and irresponsibility; and a nationwide failure to hold our leaders accountable for their nonfeasance.

Perhaps, sad to say, we need to appeal to the self-interest of our civic leadership to do something about the homicide rate. We need to remind our leaders, perhaps, that outmoded and inadequate anti-crime strategies are costing retailers, real estate agents, investors and taxpayers money -- lots of it. Maybe then they will be motivated to change the violent landscape in which too many people in this area are forced to live.

-- Eric E. Sterling

is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.


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