Murder by Numbers

Viewed through the prism of memory, some years take on a character, a distinctive tone. In 2006, crime reclaimed its place on the front pages of newspapers across the United States, including the Star Tribune. And in this year of murder, Courtney Brown and Trevor Marsh were like twin poles on a violent globe. Brown died on a Saturday night in September, while walking with friends near the intersection of Lyndale Avenue North and Dowling Avenue. He had been playing basketball. The young man who shot him wanted Brown’s basketball shoes and jersey, a replica of an old Morgan State University uniform. Brown was about to start his sophomore year at Edison High.

 

Minneapolis had been recording homicides at a rate not seen here in a decade, but Brown’s killing, which occurred on the fringes of Minneapolis’ most troubled neighborhood, struck a chord. Spurred by media attention and aided by cooperative citizens, the police quickly arrested several suspects, including the alleged shooter. He was seventeen. Charges have since been dropped.

Trevor Marsh’s murder occurred nine miles away, bringing a half-dozen squad cars and police barricades to a quiet, middle-class neighborhood. A student at South High, he was shot in the woods near the Mississippi River, below the intersection of Thirty-second Street and West River Parkway. It was October 26. Another South High student had been murdered just three weeks earlier.

Police said little about the circumstances of Marsh’s killing, but rumors swirled at the school and throughout the Longfellow neighborhood, where violent crime is rare. Marsh had been in trouble. He was shot execution style. The killers had taken his shoes, a sign of gang involvement. In late December, Minneapolis police charged two alleged gang members, one of them only sixteen, with Marsh’s murder. According to the criminal complaint, Raine C. Neiss shot Marsh at close range near the left ear because he had lied about being a member of the Gangster Disciples. An eyewitness allegedly told investigators that Neiss was playing Russian roulette with a pistol that Marsh brought to the meeting.

Along the river, a memorial grew and morphed, withered and was revived. A framed photograph in a wicker basket, flowers, balloons. Saints candles. Briefly, a blue bandanna. In December, a Christmas wreath with handwritten notes.

These murders made for two sharply contrasting tales: One victim black, the other white. One lived north, one south. One was the epitome of innocence on the fringes of a troubled neighborhood; the other, apparently living what Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak indelicately called a “high-risk lifestyle,” albeit in a supposedly safe part of the city. And yet each death created the same anguish, confusion, and even rage.

 

By year’s end, Minneapolis had recorded sixty homicides, thirteen more than in 2005 and the highest number since 1996, when eighty-eight people died violently in the city. Twenty-nine—nearly half—of last year’s killings occurred in a six-square-mile area of North Minneapolis, from Glenwood Avenue north to Dowling, and from the city’s western border to the Mississippi River on the east (minus the North Loop neighborhood in the southeastern corner). According to the 2000 Census, 49,405 people live here, which equates to roughly fifty-four homicides per hundred thousand residents. Were North Minneapolis a separate city, that murder rate would put it just behind such municipalities as Compton, California, and Gary, Indiana. If Longfellow neighborhood had the same homicide rate, there would have been fifteen homicides there in 2006, instead of three; in southwest Minneapolis, there would have been thirty-four instead of the single case—the shooting of graduate student Michael Zebuhr in Uptown—that caused such an uproar last March.

Granted, last year’s total was far below the 1995 record of ninety-nine homicides, which earned the city mention as “Murderapolis” in the New York Times. And, in fact, experts routinely caution against extrapolating from homicide data for a single year, since the numbers involved are relatively small and can be influenced by many factors, including luck. But the Minneapolis-based Center for Homicide Research has used police data and other sources to locate all seven-hundred-odd homicides in Minnesota between 1996 and 2000. Zooming in on Minneapolis shows that nothing substantial has changed between those years and 2006—there are just more dots. “Homicide doesn’t occur randomly,” pointed out Dallas Drake, the center’s principal researcher. “It clusters. It clusters in space and time.”

Minneapolis is not alone. From Orlando to Oakland, Philadelphia to Indianapolis, to Milwaukee, to Little Rock, violent crime, particularly murder, was big news in 2006. Oakland, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last October, “has hit a 10-year high for homicides.” A headline in the Houston Chronicle proclaimed that same month: “Homicide rate on track to be worst in a decade.” Wrote the Orlando Sentinel on November 3: “Death brings murder count to record 44.” In August, the Philadelphia Daily News reported that “blood is spilling at a record rate this year—not only on the streets of Philly—but in supposedly friendlier locales …”

These figures in many cases rose for the second year in a row. “Among violent crimes,” the Washington Post reported, “the biggest rise in 2005 came in the number of homicides, which leapt 4.8 percent, to nearly 17,000. Some of the hardest-hit cities included Milwaukee (up 40 percent), Cleveland (38 percent), Houston (23 percent), and Phoenix (9 percent).” According to recently released FBI figures, violent crime rates accelerated four percent in the first half of 2006. This follows a 2.5 percent increase in 2005, which was the largest increase in a decade.

 

No matter how it’s broken down statistically, murder is ultimately just a surrogate for the broader perceptions about security and danger that profoundly shape our lives. We focus on homicides, in part, because they can be measured with relative accuracy. Few go unreported; the demarcation between life and death is clear. In legal terms, too, it makes a huge difference: When a man was shot at a downtown Minneapolis bus stop in late November, the fact that he survived meant that the shooter could not be charged with murder. Knowing that the victim survived, however, does not make those who witnessed the shooting, or who wait at that bus stop every day, feel measurably safer.

Among themselves, criminologists often speak of homicide as merely one type of aggravated assault, in which numerous factors—the shooter’s skill, proximity to advanced trauma care, and sheer luck—influence the fate of the victim. A half-inch difference in where a bullet hits can mean the difference between life and death. Researchers at Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts have estimated that the U.S. murder rate would be roughly three times higher without the advances in emergency-room medicine that have occurred since 1960. And so Minneapolis’ overall homicide rate is surely reduced by the proximity of two Level I trauma centers, at Hennepin County and North Memorial Medical Centers.

But trauma surgeons saving the lives of gunshot victims masks the true dimensions of the problem, which is not so much murder as it is violence in general. A better measure of that violence might be a tally of those who are intentionally shot, or shot at, in the city; however, such figures are unfortunately only “semi-accurate,” said Minneapolis police Lieutenant Greg Reinhardt. “You don’t see a gang member saying, ‘I want to make a report that I was shot at.’ They’re going to take care of it themselves.”

Still, even the number of reported shootings in 2006 rose twelve percent over 2005, according to police figures. Aggravated assaults, which include shootings, were up sixteen percent in the same period, and weapons-related arrests were up fourteen percent. Nearly three-quarters of Minneapolis’ homicide victims in 2006 were killed with handguns; a decade earlier, when the city had eighty-eight homicides, handguns were used in about half of them. One logical response to violent crime, then, might be to take away guns from those with a propensity for violence. Police in Kansas City, Missouri, for example, cut gun crimes nearly in half when they dramatically increased enforcement in “gun crime hot spots” of laws that prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons. They took away sixty-five percent more guns than in the previous year. Researchers have reported similar results in other cities, but the methods used to seize those guns have often proved controversial, with frequent charges that police rely on racial profiling to decide whom to search.

At universities and think tanks across the United States, a small cottage industry of researchers has tried to understand why and how murder occurs, and by extension how to curb it. There is even a peer-reviewed journal, Homicide Studies. (From its November 2006 issue: “The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind is Designed to Kill.”) Like law-enforcement officials, those researchers routinely classify homicides in a variety of ways: by the relationship between victim and killer, say, or by looking at whether illegal drugs or gang membership were involved.

If the goal is to reduce the number of murders, those distinctions make sense. Preventing the death of a young child at the hands of a caregiver (No. 13, three-year-old Ethan Hamilton) or of an intimate partner (No. 43, Martell Delaney) requires a different strategy from, say, stopping drive-by shootings (No. 50, South High student Gennaro Knox ), violent robberies (No. 12, Michael Zebuhr), or drug-related murders (No. 16, Garey Hannah). Likewise, this analysis helps us gauge risk and protect ourselves.

But these distinctions have negative consequences, as well. They inherently place at least part of the blame for murder on the victim. One was buying illegal drugs, a second argued with a gang member, another chose to live with a violent partner. In this crude calculus, it is the random act of violence that haunts urban America. Thus, as the Star Tribune reported in the wake of that November bus-stop murder: “The downtown shooting wasn’t random … The boy was shot by another person who … knew the parties involved.” The subtext: You, dear reader, are safe.

These distinctions create a sort of economy of homicide, in which some lives are more valuable than others. And in this economy, daily news coverage becomes a rough measure of value. Only a handful of the city’s murders in 2006 made front-page news, and those often had a ready-made nickname (the Block E shooting, the Uptown murder), or at least a shocking detail (killed for a basketball jersey). The killing of Michael Zebuhr merited 7,500 words. Including the trial and its aftermath, the death of Alan Reitter, near Block E, generated more than 11,000 words. Michael Eide, shot near Twenty-ninth and Morgan Avenues North, was worth 313. Erman Edmonds, shot on the 3700 block of Columbus Avenue South, warranted 105.

At the very nadir of this process, the act of living in or even visiting a neighborhood plagued by violence tacitly becomes equated with risk. Murder, Drake says, “becomes normal. ‘That’s just a bad neighborhood.’ It becomes acceptable—expected—that homicide will occur there.”

In recent years, researchers in the field of public health have become involved in this discussion of homicide. From their perspective, murder might be seen as a disease that disproportionately afflicts men: In Minneapolis, the murder rate for men (27.9 per hundred thousand residents) is nearly eight times higher than it is for women (3.6). Homicide disproportionately affects African Americans, especially men: Their murder rate in Minneapolis (eighty-seven per hundred thousand) is about fifteen times that of white men (5.6). Homicide rates for black male teenagers (202 per hundred thousand) and black men aged twenty to twenty-nine (244 per hundred thousand) are staggeringly high. (The rates for whites are fifteen and eleven, respectively.) As with the maps plotting out murder locations in Minneapolis, these figures remain fundamentally consistent, year after year, decade after decade, both here and in many American cities.

Not that plenty of people aren’t trying to reduce the violence, using myriad strategies, both obvious (a police juvenile-crime apprehension unit, gun buy-back programs, increased patrols in hot spots, the new “Shotspotter” technology) and not so obvious (nonprofit organizations that rehabilitate problem properties).

We also talk good. Last August, Mayor Rybak spoke of public safety as a “civil right.” Quoting the mayor, the Strib wrote an impassioned editorial, pointing out how angry we would be if armed thugs terrorized the streets of Edina. Governor Pawlenty called the violence in Minneapolis “a statewide concern.” We write this article.

But lacking a coherent, systematic plan to address violence, all of the above amounts to tinkering. Some years see more cops added to the police force, or more dollars budgeted for overtime. But by leaving the problem to the cops (as though a thousand more officers might alone solve the problem), we forget that our safety depends most on voluntary adherence to law. As a city and state, we make a cost-benefit analysis, essentially deciding that a certain number of lives are expendable.

By contrast, Boston radically reduced its youth homicide rate in the 1990s with a comprehensive, multidisciplinary effort that has been dubbed the “Boston Miracle.” According to figures published in Murder Is No Accident, by Doctors Deborah Prothrow-Stith and Howard Spivak, fourteen children aged sixteen and under were killed by handguns there in 1988. By 1996, the city had in place more than a dozen antiviolence programs that involved numerous organizations, including community groups, the police, and hospitals. Schools, for example, taught an antiviolence curriculum. Hospitals assessed victims of violence to determine whether they were at risk of additional attacks; doctors, social workers and nurses attempted to prevent them much as they might try to prevent asthma attacks. Community groups sought to give young people alternatives to joining gangs. The police department instituted community policing and worked with probation officers to hold youth offenders accountable. The result: Between 1996 and 1998, Prothrow-Stith and Spivak report, not one child sixteen and under was killed with a handgun in Boston. Over an eight-year period, the city averaged just one such killing a year, compared with an average of seven per year in the preceeding eight years.

Many of these same programs have been implemented in cities all over the U.S., including Minneapolis. So what made Boston special? Even the authors of Murder Is No Accident, who were themselves primary architects of the Boston Violence Prevention Project, say they “don’t know exactly what happened.” While politicians and police chiefs are often quick to claim credit for reductions in crime, criminologists admit in moments of candor how little we truly know. “It’s a Crime What We Don’t Know About Crime,” the Washington Post titled one essay last July.

In this context, Courtney Brown’s death in September was, paradoxically, both random and predictable. There was no way to know that this “innocent” and “sweet” boy (as then-Hennepin County Attorney Amy Klobuchar described him) would die a “senseless” death, any more than we can know exactly who will die from secondhand smoke, and when. But the circumstances were volatile in Courtney Brown’s neighborhood. Similar killings outraged the city in the Murderapolis years. A similar killing will likely happen this year, too.

“When the [homicide] rates are going down, we feel relieved,” said Drake, “but there’s never a sense that we can eliminate homicide altogether. We expect a certain number. That’s a sick way of thinking. Not all countries have the homicide rate that we have.” By implication, the invocation of public health tells us something else important: Murder is preventable. So says a sign on the wall of Drake’s office.

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