Sunday, December 14, 2003

Three-year homicide rate rises

Chief ties 90% of deaths to street-level drug deals

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] An evidence marker is placed in the alley of Thursday's shooting on 13th Street.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
Cincinnati's homicide rate jumped more in the last three years than the rate of killings in larger and historically more dangerous cities.

The actual number of killings in Cincinnati still is nowhere near the number of people slain in cities like Baltimore, Atlanta and New Orleans. But for the fifth straight year, more people have been slain in Cincinnati than in the year before.

And that concerns city leaders and police officials.

"It's safe to say that we have a crisis," said Councilman David Pepper, chairman of City Council's Law & Public Safety Committee. "We're now in the company of cities that have reputations of being very dangerous."

Pepper used crime statistics gathered by the FBI and 2000 census data to calculate the rate of homicide per 100,000 residents in 43 large cities - a common way criminologists and others track crime trends. Based on that population calculation, Cincinnati jumped from No. 27 in 1999 to No. 9 in 2002.

That change sent the Queen City to the top of the list for the biggest three-year jump.

Now, the question is what to do about it.

Pepper, Mayor Charlie Luken and Police Chief Tom Streicher say it's best to stay the course and continue to focus on crime-fighting that works. It takes time, they say, for the department's extra focus on drug dealers and neighborhood hot spots to reduce violence.

But experts say it's not nearly that simple, and suggest that Cincinnati look to other cities for lessons - Boston, Minneapolis and several others have seen such spikes and then brought the killings back down long before Cincinnati's current trend.

Why here, now?

Streicher said 90 percent or more of Cincinnati's homicides - 67 through Saturday this year - are tied to street-level drug dealing. The answer, he said, is relatively simple - keep the pressure on people and the loosely knit groups believed to be involved in the drug trade. Drug arrests this year are up by 35 percent compared with 2002, according to department statistics.

He said his 1,050 officers can't be expected to prevent killings, when so many other social issues, like poverty, are factors. Homicide detectives are working on a report analyzing the demographics and motives of all homicides for the past seven years. It's expected to show what Pepper's numbers did - that the most common homicide victim is a black male between 21 and 30.

"We go in these houses and find children playing in plain sight of marijuana on the table and cocaine on the table - right in front of them," Streicher said. "What do we do about kids who are exposed to drugs and guns by their own families?"

Pepper said his committee's goal for next year will be to bring down the number of killings. Like Streicher, he wants to stick with what he thinks works. He compiled a list of 40 strategies, most of which the police department already does to some extent now. Among them:

• Focusing on crime "hot spots" identified by officers.

• Pushing for more federal prosecution, where prison time is usually higher, of suspects charged with gun crimes.

• Targeting drug activity.

"Those are the kinds of things that are going to turn this homicide number around," Luken said. "It's just going to take some time."

Luken called the rate "unacceptably high," but he also pointed to other crime statistics as reassurance that violence is not out of control. The number of violent crimes reported to police in the city is down by 9 percent this year compared with last. That same number, though, is 28 percent higher than in 2000.

James Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, agrees that 67 "is still not large." And three years isn't long enough for a good study, he said:

"That's sort of Chicken Little thinking," he said.

Cities all over the country have seen spikes in their homicide rate. Fox attributes most of those increases to gang activity - old members getting out of jail and going right back to their old violent ways and new, younger members joining gangs whose primary money-making activity is drug dealing, which many protect by gun-toting violence.

Pepper chose 1999 and 2002 because those were the most comprehensive statistics available on the FBI's Web site. He said he is disturbed by the spike, but even more concerned that killings have increased in each year: 63 in 2001, up from 40 in 2000; 66 in 2002 and 67 through Saturday this year.

At the same time, he noted, the city has seen an increase in non-fatal shootings: 296 through the end of October, compared with 246 in all of 2002 and 184 in 2001.

Cincinnati not alone

David Kennedy, a public policy researcher at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said the demographics of Cincinnati's homicides mirror killings in other cities: They're mostly in poor, urban neighborhoods, committed by and against people who are involved in the illegal drug trade. And those carrying guns and firing them are usually affiliated with loosely knit, drug-dealing group of young people.

"That is exactly the picture that you see everywhere in urban areas with this kind of violence," he said. Kennedy helped direct Boston's "Operation Ceasefire" program, which started in 1996 in response to a 230 percent increase in homicides with victims 24 and younger. Sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, the program is considered the first of its kind and has become a model for other anti-violence efforts in other cities.

The program brought together police, probation and parole officers, with state and federal district prosecutors, gang outreach workers and a group of black clergy. Statistics showed a 63 percent reduction in young homicide victims after two years.

That kind of coordinated event across many county and city agencies is about the only thing that works, Kennedy said. In Boston and other cities, officials essentially targeted a group that's doing the crime, made a lot of arrests as quickly as possible, then advertised those arrests to members of rival groups. The message to the gangsters: You are going to jail or prison next if you put another body on the ground.

"You have to get out there and say, once again, 'We're telling you, we're just waiting for the next group, and we'll come after you.' "

Key also for police in targeting the groups to bring down killings, he said, is for them to recognize that even though the killings might happen in a neighborhood between people involved in the drug trade, the slayings are usually related to turf battles and disputes over girlfriends. The beefs that can lie dormant for weeks, months and years then blow up, he said, or continue as gun battles until someone ends up dead.

Recognizing that difference means police can't just focus on fighting drugs. In fact, he said, sometimes drug enforcement can prompt violence - taking out the biggest dealer leaves others fighting to replace him.

Focusing on drugs

Streicher noted the Boston example, too. But he disagreed with Kennedy's suggestion that drug enforcement can prompt violence. Cincinnati has tried similar enforcement: the monthly Community Response Teams, for example, which put as many as 100 officers on crime hot spots, which were chosen by numbers of crimes, calls for service and complaints. The department started the effort in the West End after three people were killed there in a week in January.

The focus continued on the West End and its best-known gang, the Tot Lot Posse. Officers arrested at least six members of the group this year. Police used to be hesitant to publicize a gang's name, Streicher said, fearing doing so would legitimize it.

But that changed this year. Every time Cincinnati police arrested someone they thought was in the Tot Lot Posse, they said so as a means of advertising that officers were serious about busting up the group.

Lucy Logan is pleased to hear somebody at Cincinnati City Hall is talking more about the rise in homicides. Logan, of Madisonville, founded Who Killed Our Kids after her son was shot to death last year. The death, like about 80 other cases in the past three years, remains unsolved.

She became disillusioned when she addressed a council meeting several months ago, asking members to help pay for a witness protection program: "They rolled their eyes at us."

Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen has since started such a program.

Logan is working to get her group tax-exempt status and hopes to raise money to offer as rewards for information to help police solve some of the cases.

"We have to do something," she said.


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