Does Mayor Nutter Deserve More Credit for Philly’s Dropping Murder Rate?

Maybe. But only if this year's trend can be sustained.

Philadelphia Schools

Over on Twitter, journalist Patrick Kerkstra asks a really good question:

We are sometimes loathe to give Mayor Nutter credit for much of anything. He took office just as the recession set in, making it difficult for him to deliver progress to the city — a problem perhaps compounded by the fact that he seems to mix with City Council like oil and water, compounded even further by the fact that his relations with the press aren’t always as transparent as the press would prefer.

Still, as Kerkstra points out, if crime were spiking, the mayor would probably be taking a big political hit. But to give it an an honest answer, we have to know: Why is crime dropping in Philadelphia?

First, the numbers: After spiking at the nearly death-a-day rate of 321 homicides in 2012, murders in Philadelphia plummeted to a generation-low number of 247 murders — a steep drop from the previous year, and fewer murders than the city had seen in any year since 1967.

Good news, right?

And it gets better. As WHYY’s Holly Otterbein points out, the city’s crime stats are dropping overall: “reported robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries and thefts” are all down radically since 2007.

So why not offer Mayor Nutter some praise and credit and be done with it?

For one thing: Crime is down all over. If you check out the Daily Beast’s chart of the murder rate in 10 big American cities, Memphis is the only municipality to the see the number rise between 2012 and 2013. What explains the national phenomenon? There are a few answers — including, seriously, a reduction in the level of lead paint exposure in our built environment — but nobody’s zeroed in on a “magic bullet” of homicide reduction.

Then again: Philadelphia has, until this year, been notoriously resistant to the types of violent crime drops seen elsewhere. (Indeed, some of the anger about Philly’s murder rate stemmed from the fact that it kept rising even as New York seemed to solve its own murder problem.)  Check out that Daily Beast chart again — while most of the other big cities have seen murders drop with some consistency since 2003, Philadelphia’s overall trend had been somewhat flat until this year. Which could mean a couple of things: Either this year was a fluke for Philadelphia, or this was the year we finally figured out how to solve crime in Philly.

There is some evidence of the latter. The Police Department, through the press, has in recent months touted its new use of methods that take aim at the membership of an entire gang if even one of its members gets caught using a gun in a crime. Those methods have been used to great effect in other cities in recent years; it’s perhaps a shame that they took so long to migrate to Philadelphia, but perhaps telling that the crime rate finally dropped once those methods were finally used here.  Maybe we just got out of our own way.

Then again, one should also note that Mayor Nutter himself is being rather circumspect about the drop in crime. He’s not been crowing, at least publicly, about the drop in murders. And wisely so. One year doesn’t make a trend — and remember, a year ago this time the city was coming off a horrific spike in homicides during 2012. 2014 is when we find out whether 2012 or 2013 was the fluke year. No point in boasting now if it’ll make you look foolish in a year.

So the answer to Kerkstra’s question: Yes — maybe — Mayor Nutter deserves praise for his efforts. He’d probably be getting the blame is this had been a typical Philly crime year. Thank goodness it wasn’t. Whether he keeps getting credit, though, depends on whether one good year can betcome two, three, four good years in a row. We won’t really know for awhile yet.

Follow @joelmmathis on Twitter.