Murder focused in specific hot spots

Here’s a thought. Maybe we’ve been going about trying to reduce the rising murder rate in this country the wrong way. Maybe, instead of taking an aerial view of the problem, we should have been looking at things from down at the street level — analyzing crime reports neighborhood by neighborhood to specifically target the simmering pockets from which deadly violence erupts.

The Guardian has published a major piece of investigative journalism that does just that. A team of reporters charted the location of each of America’s more than 13,000 gun homicides in 2015 (the latest available figures). They concluded that half of all gun murders occurred in just 127 American cities. And then they drilled down to study each “census tract,” the specific areas within neighborhoods that had endured multiple gun-related murders.

In other words, they laser-focused in on the places that incubate crime.

And if they were laid side by side, the Guardian reports, these worst-of-the-worst U.S. crime spots “would fit into an area just 42 miles wide by 42 miles long.” This is said to be the first time gun homicides have been so meticulously mapped.

We’re constantly inundated with reports about crime-ridden cities such as Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee and St. Louis, to name just a few. But it is clear from this geographic analysis that whole cities are not engulfed in violence, nor are whole neighborhoods. Rather, deadly crime is concentrated within a small slice of territory where a tiny part of the population acts in criminal ways and, thereby, infects the peace and security of everyone.

Two cases highlight the point. In pockets of Oakland, Calif., it was discovered that a group of about 1,200 criminals perpetrated most of the violence. In New Orleans, fewer than 700 people, less than 1 percent of the population, were responsible for more than half the murders.

This raises the question: Why can’t law enforcement do more to target those individual career criminals, charge them with crimes and get them off the street? Gee, when the feds couldn’t get Al Capone for murder they got creative and, at least, charged him with tax evasion. I’m betting if cops and prosecutors put their heads together more often there would be more of these unsavory characters successfully put behind bars.

David Weisburd, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, suggests much more attention should be paid to today’s “micro-geographic hot spots.” He writes often about the “criminology of place” and indicates that if more attention was paid to these places, the nation’s crime rate could be dramatically reduced.

Of course, none of this is new to professional criminologists or veteran law-enforcement officers. But I have to wonder if politicians get it. You know, those elected officials who rail on about debatable, wide-ranging solutions to gun crimes and who only seem to appear after yet another random mass shooting. These days our national conversation on crime seems only to revolve around officer-involved shootings and more gun control laws. There’s very little discussion about ways to control the thugs who use guns in the commission of a crime.

And I also have to wonder why the FBI only collects gun-murder information from the city level, not the micro-geographic neighborhood level as the Guardian took the time to do. Wouldn’t that give lawmakers a more clear-cut idea of where crime-fighting money should be allocated?

Everyone has an opinion about what creates a violence-infested part of town: poverty, lack of education, single-parent families, unemployment, racial segregation or the availability of guns. Indeed, the crime hot spots identified by the Guardian’s groundbreaking analysis revealed that the 4.5 million Americans who live in these crime-scarred places endure all those things. But as the Guardian’s reporting revealed, “Even within high-poverty areas that struggle with many kinds of disadvantage, the majority of residents have nothing to do with gun violence.” Those citizens surely deserve to have a peaceful place to live.

There has been much said recently about income inequality. Seems to me the issue of murder inequality should be up for just as much discussion.

If we’re really serious about cutting the crime rate in this country, the path seems clear. First, focus on those 127 communities and on reeling in the habitual criminals who make life so frightening and perilous for others. Second, let’s concentrate — really concentrate — on improving education, job opportunities and racial tensions for those who live in these beleaguered areas.

Our new president has talked tough on law and order issues. Now, let’s see if his stated support for law enforcement translates into real-life actions that can help create a safer environment for both cops and citizens.

* Diane Dimond is an investigative journalist and syndicated columnist.

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