How low can murder go?
In New York, where critics said Mayor Bill de Blasio’s anti-stop-and-frisk policy would lead to more violent crime, homicides are at their lowest level since at least 1963, when the city’s police force began formally tracking the statistic. Since pot became legal in Colorado, Denver’s murders have dropped by 25 percent. Even Chicago’s unrepentant gang-bangers are sparing one another more often.
Washington has less to boast about. In the District, 105 people were murdered last year, up from 2012’s 50-year low of 88. But that’s still an 80-percent improvement over the record 479 murders of the crack-plagued early ’90s. And as of press time, killings in 2015 are running well behind the 15 we’d seen at this point last year.
The decrease in murders has been so dramatic as to invite fanciful thinking. “We want to see zero homicides a year,” says Captain Robert Alder, chief of the Metropolitan Police Department’s homicide branch, adding, “It won’t happen overnight.”
More realistically, but almost as ambitiously, MPD chief Cathy Lanier has told her commanders she wants to see murders fall to 50 annually.
The question is how to get there. Criminologists attribute murder’s steep decline to a slowing drug trade and the demolition of public housing projects, along with better data and high-visibility policing. Technology, like the cops’ use of social media and video surveillance, may help push the rate lower.
But experts see no easy path to the next level. “It’s going to be harder,” says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “Many of these murders are happening inside homes. They are much more difficult to prevent.”
DC has made gains on this front. Thanks to coordinated domestic-violence units woven into the courts, MPD, the US Attorney’s office, the DC medical examiner, and other agencies, household killings fell from 21 in 2009 to just 12 the following year, giving leaders hope.
Since then, domestic murders have jumped back up to 19. More shocking, as a share of all murders, domestic killings have doubled, from 9 percent in 2010 to 18 percent last year.
Preventing all domestic killings, anyway, doesn’t get us to 50. Based on the statistics alone, it’s possible DC’s murder rate has reached its natural limit. Veteran MPD detective Eric Felton believes a mix of high-tech and old-school policing can drive the number lower, but even he admits to a certain fatalism.
“You can never really stop a murder,” he says. “If someone’s going to kill you, they’re going to kill you.”
National editor Harry Jaffe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in our March 2015 issue of Washingtonian.