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Murder, Inc.

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body-outline.pngJust when you think you have a problem under control, it slips from your grasp.

Mayor Nutter is probably regretting his rhetoric over lowering the homicide rate,

At least he is getting frustrated at the trend lines, using the word "evil" and "assholes" recently to discuss the alleged perps . 

The mayor's immediate problem is his long-standing promise to lower the homicide rate, but the number of murders was up slightly in 2011 over 2010 and the first three weeks of January have seen a record number of homicides.

The brutal killing of Kevin Kless, 23, in Old City last weekend is a reminder of how frightening the crime can be.

Kless, a recent Temple grad, tried to hail a cab that had its vacancy light on. The cabbie passed him by and Kless yelled and cursed him.  Some guys riding by thought he was yelling at them so they got out of their car and beat him to death.

It was your classic ugly, vicious urban nightmare.

When it comes to overall story of homicide, though, the Kless killing was an anomaly. For starters, Kless was white. He did not have a criminal record. He was killed by strangers.  The instrument of crime was not a gun.

In Philadelphia, only 15 out of 100 homicide victims are white males.  Most murders happen between people who know each other. Last year, 80 percent of the victims had criminal records and 81 percent of murders were using firearms (with 9 MM handguns the weapons of choice.) All this data comes from the Philadelphia police.

Horrid deaths like the Kless case are sure to get those of us in the media wringing our hands.  Words like "epidemic" get spread about. There is much solemnizing about the sad state of our city and our society, with the chorus led by the mayor.

The reality is more mundane and more encouraging.

We have far fewer murders today than we did 20 years ago.

In decade that began in 2000, homicides were down 25 percent from the previous 10 years. That is a significant decline.

In fact, murder has been on a slow, but generally steady, decline since its heyday in the 1970's. In that troubled decade, an average of 425 people were killed in Philadelphia each year. Lately, it has averaged 302 a year.

The other significant change is the mix of victims.

Homicide in Philadelphia today mostly consists of one black man shooting another. That wasn't always so.

In the 1970's, which was the city's most violent decade, 65 out of every 100 murder victims was a non-white male (to use the tag applied by the Health Department). Today, the average is 76 out of every 100.

The racial/gender breakdown on murderers is similar.

Our Cover Story by Frank Rubino explains part of the reason why. The police don't like to talk about it, but there is a thriving gang culture in Philadelphia -- different from the gangs that dominated the headlines in the 70's, but no less pernicious.

These gangs tend to be smaller. but are jealous of their turf. Often, they are involved in drug sales. Interlopers -- rival dealers from rival gangs -- are dealt with harshly.

Murders don't happen only in disputes over turf. They happen for a host of trivial reasons: a friend dissed by a guy from out of the neighborhood; a girlfriend stolen by the guy around the block; guys who carry a fight at the basketball court into the street.

It's incredibly stupid stuff. Trivial arguments that that take a fatal turn due to the presence of a gun.

Criminologists have looked deeply into the cause and cure of murder and have come away dazed and confused. This much we know as true:

Part of the reason for the variation year to year is that there are always variations. The rate rides up and down, moving to its own unknown rhythms. To determine the trend, it's best not to compare year to year, but clusters of years.

Demographics provide a big part of the answer as to why homicide is down.

Black males between the age of 15 and 29 constitute about 40 percent of all homicide victims.

In 1970, there were 71,000 black males between the ages of 15 and 29 in Philadelphia. By 1980, there were 92,000 -- due mostly to increased birth rates, but also migration into the city. By 1990, it had gone down to 89,000.

Then, the numbers of males in this 15-29 age group began to decline. Today (actually, in 2007, the latest year available) it stands at about 63,000.

In other words, the pool of likely perpetrators and victims has shrunk -- by about 28 percent between the 1990's and today. During the same period, the number of homicide victims has gone down 25 percent.

This reality should help shape whatever debate we have over murder in Philadelphia.

-- Tom Ferrick

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