About . . . . . . Classes . . . . . . Books . . . . . . Vita . . . . . . . Links. . . . . . Blog

by Peter Moskos

February 12, 2017

Sometimes there are good guys and bad guys

A Baltimore police officer shot and killed an armed man who pointed a loaded gun at him.

You'd think this would be cut and dried. But no. It's Baltimore.

I mean really, if any police-involved shooting is clear cut. It's this one. Luckily for police, the cop had a body camera. Luckily it captures (barely) the key moment. Deal, a known violent offender, raises his loaded gun to shoot the cop.

The cop, thank God, is quicker on the draw. Deal is shot and killed. And that's where this story should end.

But no, not in Baltimore, where officers are often criticized for doing the right thing.

Commissioner Davis received flack at a press conference defending the cop, in part because he called Deal a "bad guy." Why besmirch the dead? Because maybe some issues need to be presented without moral relativism. Because if you don't point out there's right and wrong here, people will fill in the void with an alternative facts. Also, you owe it to your officers to support them through tough times.

[Have you killed somebody? Me, neither. But friends of mine have. And it's not easy on them, no matter how justified and necessary the killing was. And it's more difficult if people are saying you made a bad choice, especially when you didn't.]

In this case the City Paper takes aim at the cops in really one of the most idiotic police-related articles I've ever read. I like the City Paper. I've been reading it (admittedly not regularly anymore) for almost 20 years.

According to the story, the reason you don't know about this shooting is because "national news is at a chaotic premium right now." Actually, no. First of all, you are reading about it cause it's in all the papers and on the TV news.

But what's reckless about the City Paper story goes beyond this shooting. You may not follow this as closely as I do, but indeed, many "reformers" do not want police to be proactive at all. The story in the City Paper criticizes police for being part of the system wherein Deal ends up being shot and killed.

Less proactive policing is the goal, the position of the DOJ report on the BPD. The DOJ asserts many things, which others may then take as Gospel because the DOJ said so. This is a real problem. The report says police shouldn't confront/chase/arrest active violent offenders, especially if their identity is known. After all, somebody may get hurt:
The need for the suspect’s immediate apprehension must be weighed against the risks to officers and the public caused by engaging in a foot pursuit. If officers know the identity of the suspect, his or her immediate apprehension is likely unnecessary without exigent circumstances. However, if circumstances require that the suspect be immediately apprehended, officers should contain the suspect and establish a perimeter rather than engaging in a foot pursuit, particularly if officers believe the suspect may be armed.
Let's talk this through.

Man armed with an illegal gun, so you set up a "perimeter." (Sounds cool!) How do you do that?

What if Deal simply turns the corner and goes in a home of a friend and closes the door. (Or worse a stranger's home.) Do you send in the militarized SWAT team? What if you didn't see which house. Do you start banging on all the doors? That's not really community policing. Or maybe, since you know who Deal is, you go back to the station and start filling out an arrest warrant. (Meanwhile, calls for service are backing up until the "perimeter" is called off.)

Or what if Deal puts his gun in his waistband and runs through a vacant building into the alley. Baltimore is not like New York, where blocks are often solid with buildings and there are no alleys. But let's say there happens to be four units at the ready (fat chance) to block off the street and sit in the rear alleys. Then what? Is a cop back there? What does she do? She was given a description of young black male, black hoodie, jeans. How does she know if it's Deal? Does she start stopping all young black males who "match the description"? And what if Deal runs from her? Do you set up a new "perimeter"?

And then what?

At some point police will have to confront Deal.

That's why we have police. Police confront "bad guys" so we don't have to. (Not to say Deal didn't have any redeeming qualities, it's just that I don't think they're particularly relevant in this incident.)

Perimeter or not, assuming Deal doesn't voluntarily put himself in handcuffs, you either chase, catch, and cuff Deal, or you police in such a manner where you do not cross his path. And if you do the latter, it would failure of the fundamental role of police in society. But when police do get the memo (or lawsuit) and police less proactively, crime goes up and people complain police aren't doing their job. Sigh.

I'd prefer to resolve the apprehension of an armed gunman here and now rather than have it play out for hours or days. Especially if I lived on that block. What message does it send it police let Deal walk away? Now that would be a real blow to police legitimacy.

If there is a story here, it's about the failure of society, and in particular Baltimore's criminal justice system that was unwilling or unable to keep Deal off the streets. I mean, how does one even manage to get arrested and released three times in one month? Not only to you have to be a horrible criminal, you have to be kind of bad at it. Even Mosby's often incompetent State's Attorney's office wanted Deal held without bail! From the Sun:
For the third time in a month, 18-year-old Curtis Deal had been arrested on gun or drug charges. Judge Nicole Taylor wanted to be sure the young man understood what was expected if she released him to wait for trial.

"You're not going out at night, you're not going to get food, you're not going to meet your girlfriend. You're in your house," Taylor told him at Monday's bail review hearing, raising her voice.

"I'm giving you an opportunity to go to school and not be in jail pending this trial. The curfew is 1 p.m., 7 days a week."

Deal said he understood. Taylor wished him luck.

The next day about 3 p.m., Deal was fatally shot by a Baltimore police detective
It's worth reading the whole article by Kevin Rector and Carrie Wells in the Sun. It's a fine piece of journalism.

"A Bird's Eye View of Civilians Killed by Police in 2015"

More on the article in Criminology & Public Policy by Nix, Campbell, Byers, and Alpert. My previous post pointed out that if you use 2016 data rather than 2015 data, their conclusions would totally change.

[Update: also see Nick Selby's take on this. And David Klinger's]

How do we get data on police-involved shootings?

Trick question. We don't! A few departments, like the NYPD, issue great annual reports on shots fired by police. But other than that, we don't know. We don't know how many people cops shoot. So at best we're left with those shot and killed by police. And that's probably less than half of those shot by police.

When academics call for "more study," it's usually a cliché. But the need here is real. We don't know how many Americans get shot police each year? Are you effing kidding me?!

Given that, there's nothing wrong with using the best data you have. And I'm partial to using the Washington Post data myself. But that doesn't mean the data are good. (By good I mean valid, in that they show what they claim to show.) (I also have a bias problem with their "ticking" counter, like last year's shootings numbers are still going up. No, dude, every time I click on 2016 data, it's going to go to 963. You're not actually compiling the data on the spot.)

1st question: Is the basic number of people shot and killing by police correct?

Answer: Probably. It's an unknown unknown, but we have a lot of reasons to think most killings are here.

2nd question: Is their coding correct.

Answer: Depends on what you want. For race, probably. For threat, probably not. The data might be "reliable" (you might get the same code if you did it again). But what does "threat" labeled "other" mean? And how is that different from "undetermined"?

Others have pointed out to me that reporters don't have the expertise to judge what experienced police officers are trained to see. There's a great deal of truth to that. But more importantly, is the Post categorization valid? We don't know.

Say somebody gets killed on the street. How does that data get to us?

Well, in the traditional manner -- going from the street to the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) -- usually somebody calls 911 cause a crime happened. Some young officer shows up and takes a report. This is a local form, for a local department, not at all coded to the standards requested by the UCR (Hispanic data is a key issue here). The cop writes a report that is collected by their sergeant toward the end of their shift. It well enough written, so it goes up to some supervisor and then to some police data consolidator and then, once a year to the FBI.

At each stage it might get "cleaned up" a bit, as needed. And then, 9 to 21 months after the incident occurred, it gets published in the UCR index or Part I (or II) crimes. I've actually been able to check individual incidents I handled, later, in the UCR data. It checked out. All the facts were basically correct.

But you only know what the UCR tells you, and it isn't much. Nevertheless the UCR is considered the "gold standard" of crime data. But it sure ain't perfect. And it's particularly bad when it comes to police-involved shootings. Mostly because most departments simply do not report data on those killed by police.

Because of that, after Michael Brown in Ferguson, the Washington Post (and to a worse extent the British Guardian) said "we're going to start counting." Good on them, because nobody else was. [As was pointed out to, and I should have mentioned, killedbypolice was doing it first.] They use whatever they can, which means google searches of news accounts, basically.

So a cops (or criminal) shoots somebody. Some local reporter (most likely) with a police scanner goes to the scene and files a report. People don't get killed by police that often. It bleeds, so it leads.

That reporter either does or does not do a good job. They gather some of the information that seems relevant. But since they weren't there, they don't really know happened. It's called an investigation. Who do you believe? The cops say the guy was armed; his family says he wasn't. Reporters file a story and then the Washington Post has to decide if the guy was armed. Usually (for good reason) they go with the cop's version. But what if the cop is lying? Isn't the crux of the matter? Even if it doesn't happen much, how would we know? Of course high-profile cases get more investigation.

Which system is better? Neither. Both. It depends. But no existing data gather system is universal, mandatory, or really gets to the context of the incident.

But then even more, there's the subjective recording of data.

Miscoding threat level

The Washington Post labels a threat as either "attack", "other," or "undetermined." That's an odd trichotomy. Police care if a shooting is "justified" or not (aka "good" or "bad"). Courts care if it was criminals or not. The public may care if it were "necessary" or not. These are all different standards. But how can tell 3rd hand if a shooting was "good"?

The article's authors equate "other" with non-attack. This is wrong.

Take Paul Alfred Eugene Johnson, who robbed a bank with replica guns.
He forced the bank employees into the vault at gunpoint, told them he would kill them if they called police, and stole cash, police said shortly after the robbery.
Surveillance images from both robberies show someone dressed in similar-looking white hooded sweatshirts and carrying guns in their left hands.
There was a crazy chase. Johnson got out of his car and officers opened fire. I wasn't there, but I'm willing to call this a justifiable shooting. The threat level in the data is coded as "other," but in the journal article this gets recoded to "non-attack"? Come on, now.

Kevin Allen charged at officers with a knife. Kaleb Alexander had a gun he wouldn't drop. Troy Francis chased his wife and roommate with a knife, and then charged at responding officers. Hashim Abdul-Rasheed, previously not guilty by reason of insanity in an attempted murder case, tried to stab a Columbus, Ohio, police officer and was then shot and killed. Markell Atikins was wanted for the death of a 1-year-old, and then threatened officers with a knife. Tyrone Holman threatened to kill officers with a rifle and a grenade. Joseph Tassinari told an officer he was armed (he was) and then reached for his waistband. Harrison Lambert threatened his father with a knife before officers responded.

What do all these cases have in common (along with mental illness in most of them)? They're all categorized as "other" in the threat department. I don't fault the Washington Post for how they categorize. They may not have proof of attack beyond and officer's (self-justifying) account. I wish they did better, but they do what they need to do. (And nobody is doing better.) I do fault others who then group all these "others" into "non-attack" (n = 212), implying the cops did wrong.

I'm more curious about the label of threat called by the Post: "undetermined" (n = 44). Many of the potentially worst shootings are in this category. And yet: "Cases involving an undetermined threat level were excluded from multivariate regression models." I'm not certain why. Couldn't you go one by one and look at them? Isn't that what researchers do? I looked at a few.

The Post says Robert Leon:
exchanged gunfire with police, stole another car at gunpoint and fled. was first accused of shooting at cops and then shooting himself.
This account seems simply to be not true. Further investigation may have revealed that Leon didn't have a gun and died from police bullets. I wasn't there. I don't know. But it sure seems like an odd one to me.

The "unarmed" issue

If you're looking for bad shootings, "unarmed" sure seems like a good place to start. But it's not enough. "Unarmed" is a flag, but it is no guarantee that a suspect isn't a lethal threat. Officers have and will be attacked and killed by "unarmed" suspects.

Some of these cases, like white officer Stephen Rankin killing unarmed black William Chapman, resulted in the officer's criminal conviction. The Washington Post codes Chapman as attacking the officer. The jury may not have thought so.

The problem here, one the researchers seemed to have, is that if you look at "unarmed" suspects and those categorized as "non-attack" (the ones that people are most concerned about) you don't have a large enough n (number of cases) to do statistical analysis.

In 2015, you'd be down to a grand total of 50 people shot and killed by cops. It's enough for an outrage of the week, but you can't do much data analysis with 50 cases. And if you were to use "undermined" rather than "other" as meaning "non-attack" (I think a better but still horribly flawed categorization) you'd be down to a total of 9 cases.

February 11, 2017

What a difference a year makes...

There's an article in Criminology & Public Policy by Justin Nix, Bradley Campbell, Edward Byers, and Geoffrey Alpert that has gotten some press: "A Bird's Eye View of Civilians Killed by Police in 2015: Further Evidence of Implicit Bias"
Although we could not determine whether officers were quicker or more likely to fire their weapon at minority suspects, we argue that if minorities were more likely to have not been attacking the police/other civilians, or [emphasis added*] more likely to have been unarmed, this would indicate the police exhibit implicit bias by falsely perceiving minorities to be a greater threat to their safety.
I replicated their data and got 93 "unarmed" suspects killed in 2015. (Replicating data should be a given, but often it is not. So kudos to the authors for this.) In 2015, 38 unarmed black men and 32 unarmed whites were shot and killed by police. If the distribution were proportional to all those shot and killed, one would expect 24 blacks and 46 whites killed. This is a statistically significant difference. From this, the authors conclude "Black civilians were more than twice as likely as White civilians to have been unarmed." Twice sounds big. The absolute number? Not so big. Still, if you're one of the 38 unarmed black men killed, it matters.

Here's armed versus "unarmed" by race (for whites and blacks), for 2015 [click both to "zoom" and "refine"]:

I also looked at "threat level." For 2015, I get what the authors get:

You can see that for the threat = "other" (Ie: non-attack, in theory), one would "expect" to find 49.9 blacks in that square (if race wasn't a factor). But in reality 63 blacks were killed. That's a big and statistically significant difference.

[I'm limiting the presentation of my analysis (as is my wont) to percentages, crosstabs, and univariate correlations. If one can't describe statistics to a lay-person, it all becomes too abstract. And a problem with doing advanced statistics is then most people don't understand what they mean (and that includes most academics). And so then the reader has to take the scribe at their word.]

[Also, I have serious non-trivial issues with categorizing "other" as "non-attack," but I'll leave that aside, until my next post. Also, for replication purposes, I too exclude "undetermined" threat level (n = 42), but I don't think one should. More on that in the next post.]

Here's where things get interesting! Unlike the authors, I can publish this in seconds and, for better and for worse, not wait for peer review (though corrections and comments are always welcome).

So with the click of a button on SPSS (a statistics program), I can include 2016 data and even 2017 data right up to February 8 (when I downloaded the data).

Here's what I get when I do their analysis on threat, but for 2016:

Compared to 2015, in 2016 the results are reversed. This is a big deal. There are fewer blacks in the "other" threat level than one would expect. And the results are equally statistically significant.

A similar things happens when one looks at armed and unarmed (again, I think this is too simplistic of a division, but that's what they use).

Here's armed versus unarmed by race, for 2016:

While the data isn't completely reversed, the differences in 2016 are minor enough (and the "n," the number of cases, small enough) that the racial disparity is no longer statistically significant.

What gives? Did the problem of racial disparity in police-involved killings disappear last year? Did it even reverse? I don't know. But replicating the 2015 study with 2016 data would lead to a very different conclusion.

Here are some other interesting tidbits.

• From 2015 to 2016, total shootings deaths by police went down from 990 to 963. Given the increase in homicide, I would have expected the number of police-involves shootings to go up (they are usually correlated). I suspect that the number went down because A) given the focus on the issue of police-involved shootings, cops are less likely to pull the trigger and B) the number of discretionary interactions between cops and criminals has decreased.

• From 2015 to 2016, killings of unarmed people dropped from 88 to 49. The drop was most pronounced among blacks (35 to 17).

• Twenty-five percent of those killed by police are known to have pretty major mental health issues. This is a Big Red Flag. No doubt the real number is even higher (undiagnosed mental health issues among the poor, or simply a family that doesn't want to tell a reporter about it). Implicit racial bias might (or might not) contribute to a dozen or so deaths. Mental health issues contribute to 250 a year! You want to reduce shootings? Provide mental care for people who need it.

• Seventy-eight percent of 2015 killings (This if from Nix et al.I haven't recoded the 2016 data) happened in the South and West (with 60 percent of the population). Again, if one wishes fewer people to be killed by police, best to focus where police kill a lot of people.

• We really need more data, not just on police involved killings, but on all police-involved shootings. A lot of people are shot and not killed. We know next to nothing about this. And we need to know the context of these shootings. How did they start? How many are initiated by a call for service rather than a police officer's discretion?

• We really need to be concerned about unintended consequences of policy decision. Perhaps a laser-like focus on police shootings and police misconduct combined with lawsuits against proactive policing really have ended the racial disparity in police-involved shootings. If so, that would be great. It's just as likely that a laser-like focus on police shootings and police misconduct combined with lawsuits against proactive policing have contributed to less proactive policing and an increase in homicide. (It's hard to argue one without the other, though people will try. Oh, they will try.) Eighteen fewer unarmed blacks were shot and killed by police in 2016 compared to 2015. Meanwhile, 2,000 more were murdered, most of them black (using the Brennan Center's estimate of a 13 percent increase in homicide).

It's not crazy to see some connection between these two variables: less proactive policing could [ie: does] mean fewer police-involved shootings and also more criminal shootings. Is this the best we can do? Is this the trade-off we want? Can one or should one talk about the value the lives in this way? I don't know. But since more people are dying (though fewer at the hands of police) these are things we need to be talking about.

• Also, the number of unarmed Asians killed by police since 2015: Zero (of 30 killed, total).

[* The use of "or" is interesting. The numbers are really low. Cops just don't shoot many unarmed unarmed attackers. You can't really do multivariate analysis on a few dozen cases. Given the number of people killed by police, you can't look at racial discrepancies (statistically) when the person killed is not-attacking cops and unarmed.]

[comments are (only) available on the next, related, post.]

February 5, 2017

The Curious Case of Poverty and Crime

When I'm charming people at a cocktail parties with talk of rising crime and the role of police, the good people I talk to, rather than even considering the possibility that police matter and post-Ferguson protests might matter (in a negative way), inevitably try and shift the discussion to greater social issues: poverty, racism, and inequality, the so called "root cause" of crime.

The "root causes" position has long annoyed me. I care about those poverty, racism, and inequality, but in terms of effective crime-preventing policing today, the "root causes" are nothing but a distraction. It's basically a defeatist way to say we can't lower crime until we fix society. I'm all for fixing society, but I'm not willing to hold my breath till it happens. Also, the idea that the only way to impact crime is to address structural issues is consistently and demonstrably false.

Last year poverty went down and murder went up. In 2008, the economy tanked, and criminals barely noticed. Between 1965 and 1975, poverty is the US was way down; violent crime way up. In the 1990s, during New York's great crime decline, the number of New Yorkers living in poverty increased 21 percent. Inflation adjusted household and family income declined. Unemployment approached 10 percent.

[A few academics buck the poverty-causes-crime trend (Orlando Patterson and Marcus Felson are two that jump to mind), but despite all the evidence to the contrary, "poverty causes crime" is still pretty much accepted as scripture.]

Anyway, cause I'm not much of a football fan (or Satan fan), I thought I'd graph poverty and homicide over time. And here's what you get:

[click to embiggen]

Those lines are almost flip visions of each other (Especially if one ignores the 1990s.) Turns out, at least since 1959, there an inverse correlation between poverty and homicide in the US. Homicide goes up when poverty decreases. Statically significant and everything. Well, that's awkward.

[Update: A commenter makes a very good point that I'm overstating any statistical significance because of the high poverty years up to 1995.]

Does this mean we shouldn't reduce poverty because homicide will go up? Of course not. (I often make fun of the "correlation doesn't equal causation" mantra -- because sometimes correlation does indicate causation, and correlation certainly doesn't eliminate possible causation -- but the "correlation doesn't equal causation" mantra is well worth repeating here.) I think homicide is far less linked to macro economics than, well, macro economists would have you believe.

But this fact remains: there is an inverse correlation between poverty and homicide. [Correction: Eh... maybe, maybe not. Probably not. See comments section.] The question then is to figure out how and why and through what intervening variables. I'll leave that for better statisticians than me to figure out. But let's assume, just for a moment, that this correlation isn't random. Why might this be so?

Hell, I don't know. But if I had to hazard a guess... I'd think that perhaps some of same good policies that help reduce poverty and suffering in our country might go along with a certain ideology that occasionally has its head up its ass when it comes to policing and crime. Conveniently this might also explain the 1990s, when both poverty and crime decreased. President Clinton and Vice President Gore managed to reduce poverty while still being firmly on the police side of the ideological divide. Broken Windows was working in NYC. Welfare was being ended as we knew it. And the Feds even coughed up a chunk of change for a few more cops, to boot.

February 4, 2017

"Ronnie Goldman has a brand new cane"

Good God, I haven't posted in a while. Well, I still get paid.

Here I am on Glenn Loury's Bloggingheads TV today, talking about the issues I discuss here.

Anyway, what to post about next? I don't want to be let the perfect post be the enemy of the good. This is hardly an important post, but I couldn't resist this story:
"Good Samaritan" beats unarmed black man senseless. Called a hero. Gets a lifetime bus pass.
A bus driver gets attacked for no reason. An old poor man with a cane beats the attacker senseless. Beats him so hard, in fact, he breaks his cane. No big thing. He just goes about his night. There's a small quest to find this "hero" so he can be feted in proper fashion. Turns out he wants a new cane cause he needs one but can't afford a new one. Welcome to America.

Despite the narrative on the TV news ("it's a story about a new friendship"), Goldman didn't hit the attacker thus "allowing the bus driver to escape." The first smite came after the driver gets away. And the subsequent ten, too. But then perhaps Ronnie was just making sure the attacker couldn't get up and hurt him. Fair enough.

The attacker was arrested. But thank God this "hero" is not a cop, or white. Cause if he were either, there would be protests. But would they be justified? A cop would be fired and charged with assault. I wouldn't defend a cop doing this. Despite the feel-good narrative, I can't help but notice Goldman beat the crap out of an "unarmed man." But Goldman isn't a cop. But when is it OK to beat up a man attacking a (female) bus driver? I'm on the justice-is-served side of the equation.

What's the lesson to cops? Or citizens? I think he should just let him go with a wink and a nod. And perhaps a verbal warning. The bus company has no problem with street justice. They game Goldman a lifetime bus pass. And for his efforts, Goldman got two new canes. Good. He's salt of the earth. And needs a cane. One was wood and the other metal. He liked the metal one more. Why?:
In case I have to put in on somebody again, I won't have to put in on too bad. You know, two or three hits with this, and you'll act right.
I was glad I was there.
If I'm on the bus and it happens again, I'm gonna do the same thang."
I believe him. And this is why people don't like riding the bus.

December 23, 2016

"How much do they care?"

My previous post was supposed to be about this article by Frank Zimring from 42 years ago. But then I got caught up in the false data put out by the Brennan Center.

A friend sent me this fascinating article ("A Tale of Two Cities," Franklin Zimring, December 20, 1974, Wall Street Journal, p.14) because some of it regarding "the troubles" in Northern Ireland is blessedly dated. But much of what he wrote could be published tomorrow and considered current. (Also, I was a little shocked to learn Zimring was a professor and writing in 1974. I was three. And he's still doing well.) His point was that more people, by far, are killed in Detroit. But everybody is much concerned about violence in Northern Ireland. (By American standards, Northern Ireland was never that lethal with (3,600 killed over 32 years.) Why?:
When do people perceive violence as a major social problem, and why? What kinds of antiviolence programs will they tolerate? How much do they care?

Detroit is used to high homicide rates; most of those killed in Detroit are ghetto dwellers; and killings in Detroit are not a direct threat to public political order as it is in Ulster,
The first reason why Detroit (and her sister cities) can absorb so much violence without alarm is that Americans have had ample time to get used to high homicide.
But how is it possible to adjust to such rates of violence? In an important sense, it’s easy.
Because most of the urban body count in the United States involves the faceless young black male “non-citizens” who live and die without conspicuous outpourings of social concern. It is, in fact, misleading to talk of a single homicide rate in American cities, because ghetto-dwelling blacks kill and are killed at rates 10 times as high as big-city whites. Urban violence does, of course, affect a broader spectrum of society--small shopkeepers, street robbery victims, and men, women and children who just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But the great majority of victims are the black poor.
And most of us are pretty safe, after all....Perhaps we can protect ourselves and accept violence as an occupational hazard of urban life for the poor?
Yet there are moral and practical problems with learning to live with violence... The moral problems lie at the heart of the American dream our national greatness is defined in large measure by what we can provide for the least-advantaged among us
Yet the prospects for constructive action are dim.... The political cant that passes for dialog on violence in this country is simply another symptom of failure to face up to our profoundly serious problems.

Even with the best of intentions, our urban body count will be hard to diminish. If we continue to adjust to bloodletting, and to view violence as a nonproblem, there is every chilling prospect we will get what we deserve.
In another 42 years, in 2058, I'd like to think this piece will no longer be timely. But I doubt it. What's happened in the past 42 years? Half of Detroit left, literally. The population of Motor City dropped from 1,513,000 to 689,000. And the homicide rate? It's right where it was, 42 year ago, just under 50 per 100,000.

No, it's not just Chicago

Homicide is up at a record setting two-year pace. But you wouldn't know it from yet another press release by the Brennan Center. I think they time these to provide a "crime is not a problem" narrative to journalists, quite a few of whom are about to write year-end stories with the headline: "Oh shit, homicide is way up!" While I can't really question the motives of crime increase deniers, I can debunk the worst of their claims:

False claim #1) "Nationally," says the Brennan Center, "The murder rate is projected to increase 31.5 percent from 2014 to 2016 — with half of additional murders attributable to Baltimore, Chicago, and Houston."

This is so not true, I don't know where to start.

It's the "half" part I'm talking about. (In a previous post I mentioned that 31.5 percent should be 23.2 percent.)

Collectively, Baltimore, Chicago and Houston will see about 540 more murders in 2016 than in 2014 (my numbers are 1,406 vs. 866). Meanwhile, nationally, there will be roughly 3,600 more murders (17,768 vs. 14,164). Ergo, QED, and I told you so: Baltimore, Chicago and Houston account for 8 percent of all murders and fifteen percent of the additional murders in the US from 2014 to 2016.

8% = 1,406/17,768
15% = (1,406-866)/(17,768-14,164)

A few days ago, they doubled down, "The 2016 murder rate is projected to be 14 percent higher than last year in the 30 largest cities. Chicago is projected to account for 43.7 percent of the total increase in murders." I guess this depends on what "total" means. Because Chicago will be 14 percent of the "total" national increase.

14% = 300 / (17,778 - 15,696)

Now I think Chicago might be 43.7 percent of the increase in the top 30 cities. But that is some meaningless made-up playoff stat. I mean, if you look at the top three cities, it turns out Chicago makes up 102(?) percent of the "total increase." When your formulas can get you absurd results, it means you're doing it wrong!

Are they lying or just in error? Are they making honest mistakes or intentionally misleading? I don't know. But these "fact" are up there, cited by many, corrected by none.

False claim #2) It's all Chicago's fault

Stop blaming Chicago just because it's leading the pack.

Imagine I said, "the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s were really good!" And you replied, "No, not really, because Michael Jordan was playing for them."

Or if I said, "the Alps are a really tall mountain range!" And you replied, "Well, they wouldn't be so tall without Mt. Blanc."

It's difficult to respond to the reply because though substantively irrelevant, it is technically and semantically correct. (Is there some rhetorical term for this kind of distraction argument? Something in Ancient Greek for "hey look, a squirrel!") Indeed, Michael Jordan led the Bulls and the Alps would not be as tall without its tallest mountain. But so f*cking what? The rest of the Bulls were good basketball players. And the Alps would still be tall without its tallest mountain!

The national increase in homicide is a problem with or without Chicago. As I've written before, you can remove Chicago and other cities (not that you should) and the increase in homicide is still very large (albeit, yeah, smaller). There will be about 17,800 murders in 2016. About 4 percent of these [800 / 17,800] happen in Chicago. The two-year increase in Chicago homicide is about 10 percent of the national total  [(777-407) / (17,800-14,164)]. Conversely, 90 percent of the national increase in homicide is not in Chicago.

Chicago, of course, is special. But let's not get distracted. The rise in homicide is not just a problem in "a few, select cities." It's a problem except in few select cities.

False claim #3) Some years murder goes up and some it goes down.

Well, yes, that's true. But not right now. The increase in murder is not, despite what they say, some story of random statistical year-to-year fluctuation:
A similar phenomenon occurred in 2015, when a group of three cities — Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. — accounted for more than half of the increase in murders. This year Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are projected to see their murder rates decline, by 6 percent and 18.6 percent, respectively.
Well, you know, up one year and down the next.... Except murder is up. Not up-and-down. And when a few cities go up one year, and other go up next, and all of them go up overall, it's we who took advanced statistics call "a trend."

And dammit, cause Baltimore is personal, Baltimore is not a city running contrary to this upward trend. 2015 was off-the-charts bad for crime Baltimore, after the riots. 2016 was horrible, as in the worst year ever... except compared to 2015. I mean, it's good 2016 is not worse than 2015, but it's not good. To say crime is down in Baltimore is disingenuous at best. The highest murder rate ever -- 2015 -- should not be the new normal by which we judge success.

False claim #4) "Concerns about a national crime wave are still premature."

OK, but if not now, when? 27(?) of the 30 biggest cities have seen an increase in murder over the past two years. We need to do more than simply, "suggest a need to understand how and why murder is increasing in some cities." Are we not supposed to care as long as violence remains segregated in poor segregated black neighborhoods? And we know why murder is increasing in some cities. It's not rocket science. "Lack of socioeconomic opportunity has long been credited with high levels of crime." Yes, no shit. Of course violence happens more in shitty neighborhoods without "socioeconomic opportunity." But that's neither here nor there because "socioeconomic opportunity" hasn't gone down the shitter in the past two years. "Socioeconomic opportunity" might explain (part of) the problem. But it doesn't explain the increase in homicide in the past two years. (Last year, in fact, saw a record decrease in poverty).

False claim #5) Sure homicide is up, but not crime overall.

First of all, if you think rising homicide doesn't matter because other crime is steady, for shame. Second, homicide matters more than other crime. Period. If homicide is up, stop right there. But the statistical problem is that data on crime overall is not that good. A lot of crime isn't reported. We know that. (There's the NCVS, but they have their own problems.)

And I'm not even talking about intentional data manipulation here. An unreported mugging is still a mugging. And the reality gap between crime and reported crime is worse than you think. And it's even worse from a statistical perspective, because there's no reason to think that errors and missing data are consistent year-to-year. (I'm a big stickler about non-random missing data, if that means anything to you.)

When police get out of their car less, they make fewer arrests. And when cops make fewer arrests, *poof* reported crime goes down in sync. It's like a crime never happened. (Except, of course, it did.) If cops get out of their cars more, if cops confront more criminals, there will be more crime recorded. (Which can be falsely interpreted as an increase in crime.)

So when it comes to crime, I trust murder. And very little else. Conveniently, homicides are correlated with all kinds of crime. So if homicides are up (and I'm using "homicide" as synonymous with "murder"), and somebody tries to tell you crime is steady... you shouldn't believe them (even if they believe what they're saying). Question crime data. Hell, question all data. How else will we know if data is valid or from some fakenews meme. And when bad data gets out there, it's a problem for all data.

False claim #6) Crime is still at a historical low

Kind of, sort of. But who's to say what "normal" is? Why should the high crime decades be the standard bearer? Why not the lower crime decades? Crime is kind of where it's always been, if one excludes the high crime 1970s and 1980s. And certainly by civilized world standards we're still crazy murderous.

The point shouldn't be some arbitrary historical date but current trends. And we don't apply that "historically low" BS to other issues. You know what other things, big picture, are at historical lows despite recent uptick? Racism, hate crimes, authoritarian rulers, scurvey, and the bubonic plague. I can't put this strongly enough, but f*ck historic lows (and keep in mind when it comes to crime our "lows" are pretty high). When bad things rear their ugly head, of course we worry and try to nip the problems in the bud before they become an epidemic.

November 18, 2016

The best of times, the worst of times

Ah, the ol' Tale of Two Cities trope. But the diverging homicidal paths of Chicago and New York City are striking. The New York Post has a surprisingly good (especially for the NY Post) article on homicide in Chicago and NYC.

These are raw numbers and not a rate. Chicago is roughly one-third the size of New York City. [Notwithstanding rumors to the contrary, the national increase in murder would still be large, even without Chicago.]

First observe NYC's unheralded murder drop from 2011 to 2013. Police weren't even willing to take credit! Why? Because it corresponded with the demise of stop and frisk. And then liberal Mayor de Blasio came on the scene in 2013. If you listened to cops, the city was going to immediately descend to some pre-Giuliani Orwellian hell. That did not happen.

It turns out that quota-inspired stops and misdemeanor marijuana arrests are not good policing. Now we knew that (though even I'll admit I was surprised that literally hundreds of thousands of stops didn't have some measurable deterrent effect on gun violence.)

In Chicago, stops also stopped, but unlike New York, it was not because cops stopped stopping people they didn't want to stop. Cops in Chicago got the message to stop being proactive lest controversy ensues. Bowing to political and legal pressure, police in Chicago (and also Baltimore) became less proactive in response to the bad shooting of Laquan McDonald, excessive stop-related paperwork, the threat of personal lawsuits based on these same forms, and a mayor in crisis mode.

Less proactive policing and less racially disparate policing is a stated goal of the ACLU and DOJ. See, if police legally stop and then frisk six guys loitering on a drug corner and (lucky day!) find a gun on one and drugs on another, the remaining four guys, at least according to some, are "innocent." I beg to differ. (Though I should point out that in the real world, the "hit rate" never comes close to 20 percent.)

And then there's my beloved foot patrol. Policing is the interaction of police with the public. But there are no stats I know of to determine how many cops, at any given moment, are out and about and not sitting inside a car waiting for a call. From the Post:
A high-ranking NYPD official credited the city’s increasing safety to the widespread, targeted deployment of cops on foot patrol.

“Most cities only place foot posts in business districts. We put our foot posts in the most violent areas of the city, as well as our business district,” the source said.

“It’s not a fun assignment, but it’s critical to keeping people safe.”
Meanwhile in Chicago:
Former Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy — who was fired last year amid controversy over the police shooting of an unarmed teen — said criticism of policing methods by local officials there had left cops “hamstrung.”

“They’re not getting out of their cars and stopping people. That’s because of all the politics here,” said McCarthy, a former NYPD cop.

“In Chicago, performance is less important than politics. It’s called ‘The Chicago Way,’ and the results are horrific.”
My buddy Gene O'Donnell says:
“The harsh reality in Chicago is that you have the collapse of the criminal justice system,” O’Donnell said.

“The police aren’t even on the playing field anymore, and the police department is in a state of collapse.”

O’Donnell, who was an NYPD cop during the 1980s, said that although “New York had a similar dynamic” during the height of the crack epidemic, “we had a transformation, because people realized you don’t have to tolerate that.”
Guns are part of the mix:
Veteran Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf noted that Chicago “is much more porous to guns” than New York, with a “direct pipeline” leading there in “a straight line from Mississippi.”
But that is more of an excuse than an explanation. Newark, New Jersey, just a PATH-train subway ride away from Manhattan, has more of a gun problem than New York City. Hard to imagine a subway and a few bridges plugs the gun pipeline.

There are other differences between Chicago and New York in terms of poverty and segregation (greater in Chicago), commitment to public housing that actually works (greater in New York), and maybe even lower-crime foreign immigrants (greater in New York... but I say "maybe" because it's still substantial in Chicago, with 22% foreign born).

And then there's this:
Psychology professor Arthur Lurigio of Chicago’s Loyola University cited an “intergenerational” component to the mayhem, with sons following their fathers — and even grandfathers — into the city’s extensive and ingrained gang culture.

“Chicago’s problem wasn’t a day in the making — it’s 60 years in the making,” he said.

“Working at the jail as a staff psychologist, I’ve seen two, maybe three generations pass through.”
I don't mean to criticize an academic willing to highlight culture and the inter-generational transmission of violence, but I quibble with the line that Chicago's problems are 60 years in the making. I mean, yes, it's true.... But the explosion of homicide in the past two years is, well, a problem exactly two years in the making.

Chicago may always have a higher homicide rate than New York because of history and structural issues. But the short-term solution is getting more cops out of their cars, back on beats, and supported when they legally confront violent people we pay police to confront.

Violence-prevention depends, in part, on such confrontation. And since violence is racially disparate, this will mean racially disparate policing. Innocent people -- disproportionately innocent black people -- will get stopped. There's no way to square this circle (though we can help sand down the rougher corners).

The alternative to proactive policing is what is happening in Chicago. Police have responded to public and political (and legal) pressure: stops are down, arrests are down, and so are police-involved shootings and complaints against police. Police are staying out of trouble and letting society sort out the violence problem. How's that working out?

November 17, 2016

"Biggest Spike in 50 Years"

If only we cared about homicide victims as much as we did about traffic fatalities, we might see an article in the paper about the biggest homicide spike in 50 years. Instead, there is a Times article about distracted driving: "Biggest Spike in Traffic Deaths in 50 Years? Blame Apps."

The rise in traffic deaths -- the total number of highway deaths in America (35,000) is roughly twice the number homicide victims (16,000) -- has been reported by the Wall Street Journal, NBC, Newsweek, and Reuters. None of these stories talk about a "statistical blip," or "traffic deaths are still at historic lows," or "no need to worry, because certain high-speed roads account for most deaths." No. Nor should they. Because the rise in deaths is real and real people are dying. When it comes to traffic deaths, we take the data and try and figure what is happening and how to prevent it. Why aren't we doing that with homicide?

Violence begets violence. And the longer we stick our head in the sand, the worse this will be. I know the phrase "law and order" is right-wing, but the concept that people have a basic right to live is not. The left shouldn't cede law-and-order issues to the right. Ideological prisms need to be set aside for basic human decency. It's better to address the violence problem before thousands more are killed.

I understand, or at least I think I do, the motivations of those on the left who minimize the significance of the homicide increase. There's a very real concern that those on the right will use crime to push ineffective and even racist policies that hurt the very people most at risk. Or maybe it's difficult for some to objectively examine the homicide increase in light of everything that has happened, post-Ferguson, with demands that police be less racially disparate and proactive.

Murder victims are disproportionately poor young black male high-school drop-outs. This is politically awkward at best, certainly when it comes to the matter of black lives. But some on the left have gone so far to say that since "most Americans" aren't at greater risk of being killed, "warnings" are politically "provocative." Good God! I mean I know that you , dear reader, are much more likely to be killed in a car crash than be the victim of a homicide. But for many other people, the opposite is true. Because it affects others more than you is reason to care even more.

So I read this Times article about traffic deaths and notice how much it, word for word, could be applied to the nation's spike in murder, the one nobody is talking about. Even the graphic could basically be copied (though I made one for murder). I did change a few things in [brackets] -- eg: "transportation" to "justice" and "highway fatalities" to "homicides" -- to create the article I wish were getting as much press:
After steady declines over the last four decades, [homicides] last year recorded the largest annual percentage increase in 50 years. And the numbers so far this year are even worse. In the first six months of 2016, [homicide] deaths jumped [13.1] percent, from the comparable period of 2015, according to the [Brennan Center].

"This is a crisis that needs to be addressed now,” the head of the agency, said in an interview.

Alarmed by the statistics, the Department of [Justice] in October outlined a plan to work with the [police] and advocacy groups to devise a “Road to Zero” strategy, with the ambitious goal of eliminating [murder] within 30 years.

The Obama administration’s [Attorney General, Loretta Lynch,] said that the near-term effort would involve identifying changes in regulations, laws and standards that could help reduce fatalities.

“This is a serious public safety concern for the nation,” [she] said at a recent conference in Washington held by the National [Violence Prevention] Board. “We are all trying to figure out to what extent this is the new normal.”

Deadly [Murder] Rise
After decades of steady declines, the number of deaths stemming from [homicide] has risen in the last two years to its highest level since 2009.

November 15, 2016

Criminal Justice Reform in the Age of Trump

Over at the Cato Institute, Steven Teles wrote a piece about conservatives and how we can de-incarcerate. A group of people, myself included, are writing response pieces. Here is mine:
A few years back, for a brief while, it really did seem as if conservative Republicans were interested in reducing the number of prisoners in America. Teles argues that once conservatives get in a position of political omnipotence, they don’t have liberals to kick around anymore. Political control brings policy ownership. Without fear of political defeat or being labeled “soft on crime,” conservatives are free to judge prisons on cost, effectiveness, and even morality.
There are indeed some extremely low-hanging fruits of de-incarceration, some truly nonviolent offenders and others who may have been ignorant of the crime they committed. [But] to return to pre-1980 levels of incarceration in America, 80 percent of prisoners would have to be released. This will not happen.
On crime and police, the first steps in incarceration, Democrats in the past two years were eager to abandon 20 years of generally pro-police policy dating back to Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Trump’s victory could allow the left (at least the moderate left) to shift from the #BlackLivesMatter police-are-the-problem mentality to one more focused on actually preventing crime.... Had Hillary Clinton won the election, an unprecedented two-year 25 percent increase in nationwide homicide since 2014 would certainly have revived crime as a wedge issue and placed Democrats on the defensive. It still may. The coming days could be dark indeed.

November 12, 2016

"I took an oath to protect all"

Once again an excellent Facebook post from my friend. The words are his. The idea he got from a San Fransico Police Officer:
Safety pins have become a symbol of solidarity with minority groups who feel threatened by events in this country. People are posting selfies with their pins, letting those minority groups know they have a friendly and safe face to look out for them.

Below is my pin. It's on the back of my badge. I started wearing it in 2003 after I took an oath to protect all - regardless of race, religion, creed or sexual orientation. Regardless of current popular belief, I promise to continue to protect and watch out for all and be there for anyone who needs my help, along with my 800,000 safety pin wearing brothers and sisters in blue.

Homicide is up, and it's not Trump's fault yet

Somehow, between the Cubs winning the World Series, the presidential election, friends and family visiting, and, you know, my job, I missed this.

The Brennan Center, which has been repeatedly telling us not to worry about rising homicide, predicts that this year's homicide increase will be even bigger than last year's increase (last year's was 10.4%, this year's is predicted by the Brennen Center to be 13.1%). The Brennan center says "Nationally, the murder rate is projected to increase 31.5 percent from 2014 to 2016."

[Update/correction: Their math, as has been pointed out to me, does not add up. By my math, a 13.1 percent increase after a 10.4 percent increase is a 24.9 percent 2-year increase. I've changed a few things in this post to reflect the correct number.]

Homicides up by 25 percent in just two years? This is the biggest two-year increase ever.

Their conclusion:
There is no evidence of a national murder wave.
What the f*ck? I'm getting these numbers from their report! It's like Bagdad Bob all over again. I wonder how long they can keep this up.

Oh, but they do go on:
Increases in these select cities [Baltimore, Chicago, and Houston] are indeed a serious problem.
You think? But...
most Americans will continue to experience low rates of crime. A few cities are seeing murders increase, causing the national murder rate to rise.
Apparently, goes their logic, as long as homicide goes up more in some cities than others, it's not really going up elsewhere, even though it is. To say the increase in homicide is due to a few "select cities" is simply not true.

Chicago, Baltimore, and Houston are not at all creating the national trend. They're just the leaders of the pack. One could remove "these select cities" -- not that you should, mind you, but I have -- and we're still left with a huge increase in homicide, nationwide.

[And the "most Americans" part really gets my goat. Like we didn't to worry abut minorities at risk? I'd like to hear the Brennan Center tell that to everybody afraid after Trump's victory.]

And mark my words: when the official UCR data on this year comes out next year, those on the Left will be quick to blame Trump and everybody and everything except what has happened since 2014, post-Ferguson, locally with policing and nationally with the DOJ. These past two years have been an unprecedented and unmitigated disaster in terms of rising murder, particularly among poor young under-educated African-American men with guns. And the only person who even pretended to care (and based on his record, I seriously doubt his sincerity) just won the presidential election.

Speaking of my words, a short while back I wrote this:
Here’s what scares me right now more than guns: the potential right-wing law-and-order backlash. ... It will be the largest [homicide] increase in decades. And yet the Left has been in denial about this (and/or discounts its significance). ... we’re virtually conceding law-and-order issues to Trump and the fascist Right. Politically and morally, this is bonkers.
And this:
Politically, I don't want to the only people responsive to rising crime to be Trump and the "law-and-order." They scare me.
And that's the world we live in. The Left wouldn't address this issue. Well, let's see what happens now.