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Half of city's homicides are related to drugs

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Detroit still ranks high in killings

Police say that half of city's homicides are related to drugs

January 4, 2005

BY BEN SCHMITT

FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Homicide rates declined significantly in many big cities last year across the country.

But not in Detroit.

With 43 killings per 100,000 residents, Detroit ranked near the top for homicides in major cities in the United States in 2004.

New York, for example, had a rate of seven per 100,000, continuing a decade-long trend of drastically reducing homicides. Chicago cut them dramatically in 2004, and recorded a rate of 15 per 100,000.

James Tate, a Detroit police spokesman, said more than half the city's murders were drug-related, "meaning that the sale, purchase or possession of illegal narcotics was the motive behind the murders." He said $74 million in illegal drugs and $9 million in drug proceeds were taken off the streets last year.

Tate pointed out that Detroit's homicide toll by last April was 50 percent higher than the toll in April 2003. But the killings slowed considerably for the rest of the year, and the city finished with a 4.9-percent increase in total killings -- 384 -- compared to 366 in 2003.

The raw numbers of Detroit's recent homicide totals appear to be a vast improvement over the elevated totals of the 1970s and '80s. But the city's massive population loss makes comparisons of raw numbers largely irrelevant.

In 1974, Detroit recorded 714 homicides -- the most ever -- and acquired the unwelcome nickname of Murder City. Its 2003 tally of 366 was the lowest since 1967; last year's total is the second-lowest since '67.

"The murder rate is the only way we can make comparisons across cities," James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said Monday. "Even then, there are hazards to doing that because cities differ in terms of demography and geography. Cities that tend to lead the list are those that have a high concentration of urban poor, particularly African-American underclass."

In Chicago, the rate dipped to 15 homicides per 100,000 residents with a 25-percent drop in killings. In 2004, Chicago -- which is three times larger than Detroit -- had 445 homicides, the first year since 1965 that it finished with fewer than 500 killings. In 2003, it had 600.

"It's a combination of violence reduction initiatives put into place a year ago," said Chicago police spokesman Pat Camden. "When we looked at major causes of homicides, they came back to the same tune as across the country: gangs, guns and drugs."

Camden said the Police Department used long-term surveillance and undercover tactics to take down drug organizations from lookout crews to major dealers.

He cited a 98-percent conviction rate on such operations.

"Our success is also based on what didn't happen," Camden said. "When there was a gang shooting, we knew that there would probably be a retaliatory shooting and we sent officers to the areas where the action might take place."

New York, with more than 8 million people, got its rate of seven homicides per 100,000 residents by recording only 566 homicides in 2004 -- only 182 more than Detroit, whose estimated population is about 901,000. In 1990, New York had 2,245 killings.

The New York Police Department credits a high-tech database, which tracks motives, locations and the national origins of victims and killers, as part of the reason for the reduction.

New Orleans eclipsed Detroit in 2004 with a rate of 56 homicides per 100,000 residents. But Washington, D.C., reduced its rate last year to 34 per 100,000 residents, from 41 per 100,000 the previous year.

Fox, of Northeastern University, said keeping the rates low is more impressive than a one-year dip.

"Chicago had an extraordinary year," he said. "The challenge will be to repeat it. Sometimes the homicide numbers go so low that there's a bounce-back effect."

Detroit has averaged 467 homicides a year over the past decade.

Contact BEN SCHMITT at 313-223-4296 or [email protected]

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