Panicking about murders in OKC

Posted: April 12, 2013 in Uncategorized

I wrote last week about how violence in Oklahoma has been on the decline for the last 20 years, but the state is not doing as well as the rest of the country, on average.

On the very same day that my post went up, Steve Lackmeyer over at the Oklahoman posted on his blog that…

There is a growing concern out there about crime – especially how the city flirted with setting a new record last year in the number of homicides. The city has seen tremendous growth, and is said to be growing by 2,000 people a month. Yet the police force remains at the same level – and actually was down a bit not too long ago – as it was 20 years ago. That math, critics charge, doesn’t add up.

Now, I really like Steve’s blog. He does a great job covering downtown OKC. There isn’t anyone more passionate about their subject covering a beat in Oklahoma journalism.

That being said, I was a little concerned about his claim that the city nearly set a record in homicides last year. I was surprised by that after just writing about how violent crime rates were dropping. You’ll notice something, though, if you look at my post from Friday. There isn’t a single statistic in there from 2012. It takes official reporting agencies like the OSBI and FBI a long time to get the official numbers online. There just aren’t any numbers from 2012 available on those sources.

Fortunately, Google game through for me, and I was able to find some stories from local media outlets discussing Oklahoma’s murder numbers for 2012. There were 99 murders in OKC in 2012, which is 39 more than in 2010 and 2011. That’s a pretty big jump, but what does it mean?

No big surprise, the Oklahoma Gazette has the best analysis of it to date. You should read the whole thing for yourself, but the money quote is at the very end.

They cannot stop the increase in murders, nor could they take credit for a year when there was a drop in the number of city homicides. As Knight put it, “Nobody really knows what the driving force is.”

Basically, we have no idea if 2012 was an outlier or not. It could be anything from the unseasonably warm winter to an increase in gang activity. Only time and data analysis will tell.

I made a big deal in my post on state violence numbers to point out that you have to talk about rates of violence compared to overall population numbers, not incidences of violence over time. That holds true for murder in OKC as well. We should expect the raw number of murders in OKC to rise over time. The city’s population has boomed over the last few years, and we’ll likely continue to see that boom continue as long as the economy here holds out.

Oklahoma City grew by 15% from 2000 to 2010, adding 73,867 residents. That trend has continued into this decade. Between April 2010 and July 2012, OKC grew by 3.5%, outnumbering any other city in Oklahoma in 2010-11.

With that kind of rapid growth, you should expect to see the murder rates trend up. I went into the FBI’s crime reporting by city and pulled out Oklahoma’s numbers going back to 1995, which is all that is online. I pulled out the numbers from each year, and then added in 2012 from the news articles. The FBI numbers don’t match the media numbers exactly for each year. For example, the FBI has 54 and 58 murders for OKC in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The media reported 60 for both.

I don’t know why there is a discrepancy, but the FBI does use the same criteria over time, allowing us to compare apples to apples and spot trends. Unfortunately, it doesn’t allow us to compare apples to apples for the year 2012, because it doesn’t have Oklahoma City’s numbers up yet. Instead, I had to compare the 99 number from the media with Wikipedia’s population numbers for 2012.

Here are the numbers by year of murders per 100,000 people:

  • 1995 – 12.7 (Not including the bombing numbers)
  • 1996 – 14.3
  • 1997 – 12.5
  • 1998 – 12.0
  • 1999 – 11.8
  • 2000 – 7.8
  • 2001 – 8.8
  • 2002 – 7.4
  • 2003 – 10.1
  • 2004 – 10.3
  • 2005 – 10.7
  • 2006 – 10.3
  • 2007 – 10.7
  • 2008 – 10.3
  • 2009 – 11.7
  • 2010 – 9.4
  • 2011 – 9.9
  • 2012 – 16.6

As you can see, 2012 is by far the highest murder rate. It is entirely possible that this is an outlier. It is also entirely possible that it is the beginning of a trend. Only time will tell.

It is worth nothing that the two years prior are near the bottom of the list, with only 2001-02 being lower. Little things might cause a fairly large fluctuation in the numbers. It’ll be years after the fact, and complicated parsing of the data, before we can make any real conclusions about causal mechanisms.

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