A little earlier this month, I wrote something about being preoccupied by a small database project on Oakland’s homicides from last year. I should use the word “small” advisedly. Even though homicides represent a small slice of Oakland’s overall crime for 2012–the 500 or so shootings, the 2,200 other assaults, the 214 rapes, the 4,126 robberies, the 12,549 burglaries, the 7,020 stolen vehicles, the 6,006 larcenies–violent death casts a uniquely dark shadow across a community and robs it of any sense of security.
That’s the abstract level. On a more personal level, I wanted to gather as much information as I could on who had died, how they had died, and the aftermath of the deaths. That meant going from the Oakland Police Department’s often incomplete daily spreadsheets, which note times and locations of reported homicides, to media accounts that have the identities of victims. This is far from a novel project, unfortunately; the Oakland Tribune has been doing profiles on all the city’s homicide victims for the last several years (in fact, when I hit a dead end on finding names in several of these case, the Oakland police suggested we check the Trib’s year-end wrap-up, which had yet to be published). Back in the mid-90s, I edited a long series of stories at The San Francisco Examiner in which we tried to do a personal profile of every San Francisco homicide victim for a calendar year (we had reporters chasing after homicide investigators for details in more than 100 cases, I think; I was even less popular than usual among the reporters). Many news organizations have undertaken similar enterprises. The common thread in all of these projects, I think, is an attempt to humanize the people lost in the statistics.
As I wrote earlier, one pattern that emerged pretty early looking at all these cases was how relatively seldom anyone was arrested in the killing (at KQED News, we did a story last week that took a quick look at the most obvious reasons for the low arrest rate: lack of police resources, an underfunded crime lab, and, most important, the fact many people in the neighborhoods suffering the most from the plague of violence simply don’t trust the police).
For that story, we turned my homicide database into a map (below). You can click on the dots for the basic details of every death. Red dots show homicides that have not yet been solved. Green dots show cases that have been “cleared”–which means someone’s been arrested and charged. Yellow dots are cases ruled to be justifiable homicide. The single blue dot is for an officer-involved shooting also ruled to be justifiable homicide.