“A bloody start to the year for Philadelphia,” said CNN. The Daily Beast screamed, “Homicide Spike Terrorizes Philly,” while Salon bemoaned “Philadelphia’s grim killing spree” and the Daily News declared a “murder epidemic.”
These were the headlines that gripped the minds of readers throughout the region and beyond at the dawn of 2012, as news outlets tracked an appalling citywide murder rate that had topped a killing a day — a trend that seemingly heralded the moral and social decay of the nation’s fifth-largest city.
Now, just one short year later, there is silence.
Murders in Philly are down 42.5 percent so far this year. The number of shooting victims declined 23 percent. In fact, all major categories of crime except rape have seen decreases so far this year.
Yet criminologists like Jerry Ratcliffe, chair of Temple University’s Department of Criminal Justice, remain skeptical of such limited data. Ratcliffe cautioned that it was “too early to call it a ‘drop’” in crime. Similar sentiments from experts, however, are often absent from narratives on early spikes in the homicide rate, as the media and public struggle to comprehend its vacillations — alternately blaming shoddy police work, the courts, entitlement programs, education and residents themselves.
Philly Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey agreed it was early in the year to be looking for trends. But he’s hopeful that police strategies are paying off. The homicide clearance rate has been 92 percent, up from around 70 percent in 2012. “We made some personnel changes using an analysis of our most violent areas of the city, really narrowing it down to very small geographic areas,” he says. He also credits federal assistance and GunStat, a new program in cooperation with the District Attorney’s Office to target violent repeat offenders.
Ramsey could argue that he’s doing more with less: Police ranks are down 5 percent from a decade ago. He acknowledges the department is “a little short.” The entire cadet class set to graduate in March (just 23 officers due to budget constraints) will be assigned to foot patrols, mostly in the crime-ridden 22nd District. “We’re going to concentrate them, so you feel it,” Ramsey says.
Despite these efforts, there may not be an answer to why such fluctuations occur, beyond chance — or, as Ramsey partially explained last year’s concurrent rise in homicides and decline in overall shootings, better or worse “marksmanship” on the part of criminals. Or, of course, maybe the explanation is simple: Short-term statistics are less significant than the headlines would lead us to believe.