Oakland’s Homicide Rate vs. Chicago’s

So here I am on vacation. I slept late; or more accurately, went back to bed after my spouse/best friend went off to work. I got up, microwaved the early-morning coffee, and sat down at the computer.

I happened across a headline about a fatal shooting over the weekend in Oakland — the city’s 52nd homicide this year. That brought to mind a conversation I had with a friend last week during which I rashly said that though Chicago has gotten lots of media attention this year over its shocking wave of killings, Oakland’s rate was still actually many times that of Chicago. Yes — I said “many times.” But doing the arithmetic in my head as I spoke, I corrected myself — Oakland’s rate is higher than Chicago’s, though not “many times.”

Seeing the story about the weekend murder, I decided to quickly run the numbers to see whether my assertion was true. (Reminder for the next time this impulse hits me: When I run the numbers, it’s never “quickly.”)

What I’ve done in each case is to “annualize” the number of homicides by taking the current toll, dividing by 9 to get a monthly average, then multiplying the result by 12 to project a 2016 total based on that monthly total. To get a rate of homicides per 100,000 population, I divided the projected 2016 totals by the city population — or actually, by the number of 100,000s in each city’s population. Oakland’s population is currently estimated at about 420,000 (divisor used in my arithmetic=4.2) and Chicago’s is 2,720,000 (divisor=27.2).

So, as of Monday, September 26, with 52 homicides reported so far in Oakland and 545 reported in Chicago, here are the annualized rates:

Oakland’s 2016 homicide rate per 100,000 residents: 16.39
Chicago’s 2016 homicide rate per 100,000 residents: 26.72

Regard those as rough (but good ballpark) numbers. Each includes a few “justifiable” killings — those committed in self-defense, for instance — that the FBI won’t count in its annual tally of homicides and cases of non-negligent manslaughter.

How much have things changed in the last few years?

In 2012, Oakland experienced a spike in homicides: 127, excluding a handful of killings that were ruled to be justifiable. Chicago had a total of 500 homicides, excluding a half-dozen “justifiable” killings. Using the same method, here are the rates:

Oakland: 31.75
Chicago: 18.45

The FBI calculated the national homicide rate in 2012 at 4.7 per 100,000 population. Chicago’s number was four times the national rate; Oakland’s was more than seven times the national rate.

The limited takeaways from the Oakland vs. Chicago rates:

Oakland’s decline is historic, in a sense: Barring a sudden surge in killings, the city is headed to its lowest annual homicide toll since 1999, when 60 were recorded, and would be the second lowest since 1985, which is as far back as the FBI numbers go. (Yes, I could hunt down the earlier numbers and perhaps will on some future vacation or workday.)

One also observes that 1999 was at the height of the dot-com boom, when employment was high and the regional economy was generally robust. Right now, we’re in the midst of an even bigger boom — characterized by home prices that are out of reach for many. Coincidence or correlation?

Chicago’s murder surge is also historic in a sense, with the projected number representing about a 50 percent increase in homicides in one calendar year. Though the overall total is still far below the terrible years of the early ’90s, when the city’s homicide toll topped 900 in 1991, 1992 and 1994, the city hasn’t seen anything like that year-over-year jump in the past 30 years (and maybe ever).

Crime Statistics, Lives Lost

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.


Murder City

By way of MK, an absorbing site from Northwestern University, Homicide in Chicago 1870-1930. It’s a database of 11,400 killings in the city during the six decades between the eve of the Chicago Fire and the beginning of the Great Depression. The information comes from a handwritten Chicago Police Department index. It’s a pretty staggering collection, and one that tends to at least soften the notion that we live in remarkably violent, crime-ridden times. I went into the site and looked up cases that took place on Racine Avenue, a major thoroughfare a block west of the street where my mom grew up. Some highlights:

June 17, 1920

Ryan, Paddy “THE BEAR” – Age 37 – Fatally shot in Racine Ave., 100 feet north of 14th St. by some unknown man who escaped. Motive jealousy. [The suspect’s identity was unknown but his motive was? Chicago Tribune stories from the time say this was a hit undertaken because Ryan, gang chief and ward heeler, was not “splitting square” the proceeds of a recent liquor heist. Suspects named in “Front Page” fashion included a diminutive pickpocket identified only as “The Rat” and Ryan lieutenant “Nuts” Nolan. The stories suggest that police detectives stood by and watched the Ryan shooting because he might have sung about cops on the take.]

June 4, 1923

Santorsala, Rose, alias “Blackhand Rose” – Age 37 – Shot to death in her home, 416 N. Racine Ave., by some unknown person or persons who escaped. [Love the handle “Blackhand Rose.” Wonder what her game was.]

July 23, 1925

Long, Arthur – Age 42 – Fatally assaulted with an iron bar (neck broken) at 5:45 A.M., at 7930 So. Racine Ave., the Cascade Laundry Co., where he was employed by four safe blowers who also bound and gagged two other employes, blew the safe and escaped. 10 Dist. Charles Pfarmenschmidt and Joseph Bushell are wanted. [This is four blocks from my grandparents’ home; they were married in 1925, I think, but I’m not sure they had moved in there yet.]

March 22, 1929

Kaplan, Howard – Age 19 – Accidentally shot to death at 11:30 PM, 3/22/29, at 3047 Racine Ave., during an initiation of members into the “Royal Order of Skulls” by Louis Dolinsky. On 3/23/29 Dolinsky, who was not booked, was exonerated by the Coroner.

March 21, 1930

Danaher, Dennis – Age 55 – Found shot to death at 10:45 AM, 3/21/30, in the bedroom of his home, 4th fl., 326 So. Racine Ave., the place in disorder. Deceased collected on his wife’s insurance policy a few weeks ago and it is believed his unknown assailant’s purpose was robbery. 26 Dist. The doors were locked but the bedroom window was wide open.

May 31, 1930

Chick, Rose – Age 29- Shot to death at 9:30 AM, 5/31/30, in a room at the Bel Ray Hotel, 3150 N. Racine Ave., by her husband, Noah S. Chick, from whom she had become estranged. They had registered at the hotel as Mr. and Mrs. John Swanson and met in an attempt to effect a reconciliation. Chick also attempted suicide but did not succeed.

August 5, 1930

Jelinek, Agnes – Age 6; Emil – Age 3 – Murdered in the kitchen of their home, 1848 So. Racine Ave., by their temporarily demented father, Frank Jelinek, who worried recently over financial losses. He cut the children’s throats, fractured his wife’s skull with a hammer, and then committed suicide by slashing his own throat. [Temporarily demented? I looked this case up in the Chicago Tribune’s archives. The paper gave this page one treatment, complete with a picture of one of the two child victims. Two of the killer’s older sons by a previous marriage survived because they were away at work. They discovered the bodies when they came home. According to the Trib: “The two brothers said their father had been acting queerly for several months and recently purchased some rope with the avowed intention of hanging his entire family. At that time, the brothers said, their mother sought to have her husband placed in an asylum, but was restrained by relatives.” The dad was said to have been frantic over losses in his candy and cigar store, situated at the front of the death house.]

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