Philly’s Murder Rate Is Low. So What?

A Temple professor says homicide numbers are a bad way to measure police effectiveness.

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Here’s the good news: Philly’s homicide rate stayed low in 2014 — “just” 248 murders, one more than the year before, but down from 391 in 2007, the year before Mayor Nutter took office.

The less-thrilling news? Maybe that number doesn’t matter quite as much as police, politicians, and the media make of it.

At least, that’s the argument being made by Jerry Ratcliffe, professor of criminal justice and Director of the Center for Security and Crime Science at Temple University. In a blog post published Monday, he argues that the homicide numbers “are a really bad choice of metric” for measuring everything from a city’s safety level to the effectiveness of its police force.

Some reasons why:

• Many murders take place indoors, between people who know each other: ” How are the police department supposed to anticipate and prevent those homicides?” Ratcliffe writes. “Even if they develop a ‘Minority Report’ predictive capacity, we have a reactive legal and criminal justice system: it isn’t keen on letting the police just wander into your house and lock you up for pondering murder.”

Most street killings are similarly hard to predict and prevent: “Sitting in on numerous Philadelphia Police Department crime briefings and listening to the homicide reports, it is clear that many are the result of minor disputes that flared up with little-to-no warning or are the result of disputes between participants in gangs or drug organizations who conceal their business and would never seek the intervention of the police.”

Sometimes homicides are prevented by great medical care after a shooting. “Could be the shooter has lousy aim or is firing gangster style, there is a delay in getting the victim to the hospital, or simply medical mismanagement.”

So many of those variables are outside police control, Ratcliffe suggests, so why praise or criticize the police based on them? In any case, he adds, murders may claim a lot of attention in the media and from officials, but they may not even pose that big a law enforcement problem. He calculated that in 2013, the Philadelphia Police spent less than one quarter 1 percent of its time on murders.

So what’s a better way to measure a city’s safety from crime? Ratcliffe suggests aggravated assaults and robberies — both of which occur way more often than murder — might be a better metric. And good news: Those numbers are also down in Philadelphia.

“Homicides comprise so little of the work of a police agency, and the chances of most people being a victim of homicide are so low, that they tell us little about the experienced crime rate or the quality of life for city residents,” Ratcliffe writes, and concludes: “We need to evolve beyond our fixation with homicide if we are to move the discussion about safety and harm forward.”