During the first half of 2012 Seattle politicians and thought leaders were in a positive panic. There were seven murders in the city during the year’s first 55 days, compared with two for the same period of 2011. The hue and cry got even worse in May of that year when the murder of five by Ian Stawicky, the crazed killer starting at Seattle’s Cafe Racer, brought the yearly count to 21–one above all of 2011.
The mayor called for new measures. The editorial page of The Seattle Times demanded “concrete measures” without specifying exactly what they should be, while a columnist declared gunfire “could strike anyone, anywhere, at any time.” People were in a tizzy.
In both that February and May, I wrote here the city was wildly overreacting. In my New To Seattle view the community, while understandably upset over any killings, was committing some fundamental errors of statistical modeling. These included declaring changes in long-term trends using data from ridiculously short periods of time, and ignoring the tendency of numbers, all other things being equal, to revert to the mean.
What do you know? By the end of 2012, the murder count had risen, but only to 26–exactly the average of the past 10 years, and, with a growing population, a lower per-capita rate.
I bring this up again because we’ve just closed the books on 2014, two years later. How many murders in Seattle? By my count, 21. That’s also below the new 10-year average of 24 and, with the added population, maybe the second-lowest single-year murder rate of the past half-century.
Again by my dead reckoning, that makes the Seattle murder rate 3.2 for every 100,000 residents. Here’s a little perspective using preliminary data pulled from the Internet. New York City last year had 328 murders in a city of 8.4 million, for a rate of 3.9. Los Angeles had 254 murders among its population of 3.9 million, producing a rate of 6.5. Wild Chicago’s 2.7 million residents endured 425 murders, for a much higher rate of 15.6. Detroit, with 689,000 residents and 300 murders, came in almost off the charts at 43.6.
So murder is really not a big problem in Seattle. That would be true even if, in line with a reversion to the mean, the number goes up a bit in future years.
However, the murder rate is really a lousy proxy for gauging overall law and order, or, more broadly, the civility of civilization. Killin’ is still a pretty rare act, even in the gun-happy U.S. But judging from data on the Seattle Police Department website, some of the other, broader data trends are not as rosy.
Excluding murders, in Seattle incidents of violent crime–rape, assault, robbery–went up 8% in the first three quarters of 2014 compared with the first three quarters of 2013, to what looks like the highest total in years. (Data for the full year 2014 is not yet in.)
Moreover, property crimes–car thefts, burglaries and the like–jumped a whopping 37% for the first nine months of 2014 over the same period of 2013. This affects a lot more people; there are roughly 10 crimes against property for every one crime against a person.
Mindful of the mean and its reversionary pull, it’s certainly possible these numbers will decrease in the future. But the time period–nine months versus 55 days–is a lot longer, making the statistical trend a little more robust. And amid the economic euphoria enveloping Seattle, I perceive a growing, darker undertone among some of those not sharing the bounty, which might account for some of the property crime increase.
My, how time flies.