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Boston Crime: Homicides Are Down, But Do We Care?

When it comes to crime and personal safety, what we perceive to be true differs from the reality. But, really, does it even matter?

Is crime getting worse in Boston?

This weekend, some of the hundreds of teens hanging out at Carson Beach in South Boston ended up in a “gang fight”. Just last week, there were mid-day in the South End. And, last weekend, Boston police say the owner of a restaurant in Charlestown was during a fight with a local teenager.

So, the logical answer to the question would seem to be, “Yes.”

Makes perfect sense, no? In a bad economy, we’d naturally see an increase in crime, right? When people don’t have jobs (meaning, money), what other choices do they have but to hold up banks and rob people? And, people who are already at the edge end up snapping, leading to fights, stabbings, murders, and rapes.

But, the actual answer is, “No.” Nationally, major crime is at a historic low, in fact, and getting lower all the time. This includes homicides, rapes, aggravated assaults, robberies, burglaries, and motor vehicle thefts. (The Wall Street Journal ran a great column over the weekend, Hard Times, Fewer Crimes, which explores possible reasons.)

This same phenomenon has occurred here in Boston.

Homicides at lowest level in at least 20 years

The following are the number of murders committed in the city of Boston during each of the past 20 years. Source: FBI, Uniform Crime Reports

Year # of homicides 1990 143 1991 113 1992 73 1993 98 1994 85 1995 96 1996 59 1997 43 1998 34 1999 31 2000 39 2001 65 2002 60 2003 39 2004 61 2005 73 2006 75 2007 65 2008 62 2009 50 2010 73

After peaking in 1990, homicides in the city have decreased during the past 20 years by almost 50 percent.

It’s true, as reported in a recent article, that there was an by almost 50 percent between 2009 and 2010, but that increase may have been an anomaly.

Although there was a spike in 2010, the number of murders this year has dropped by half, again. The Boston Police Department has just released January 1 - May 31, 2011 crime data and it shows 12 murders so far this year compared to 27 murders last year. Rapes, aggravated assaults, and property crimes are also down. (Exceptions: rapes are up in Area B - Mattapan and North Dorchester - and burglaries have jumped in Area D4 - Back Bay / South End / The Fenway.)

But, do facts matter?

To you and me, facts don’t matter when bad things are happening in our own neighborhoods. It’s cold comfort to hear about dropping crime rates if you take the subway from Savin Hill and just witnessed a fatal shooting, or if you enjoy walking through your neighborhood and read about a stabbing on Main Street. I don't want to hear that major crime is lower overall after I see Boston police officers searching for spent shell casings from a "high-capacity firearm".

I had a flashback when I heard about the last week’s shooting on West Dedham Street. During the summer of 1992, I lived on Blackstone Square, in the South End. There was a murder committed a block away, in the O’Day Playground, a shooting into a crowd of families out enjoying themselves. It was a shocking and disturbing event. Today, 19 years later, I still avoid that block and tell everyone I know to, as well.

Memories die hard

During the weeks, months, and years we enjoy the relative peace and quiet of city living. When incidents such as this happen, it breaks us out of our sense of complacency, because of the effect on our feelings of safety and security.

If it happens once, most of us pause, and then move on. Twice or three times, we are called to action - talking to our friends about crime, maybe getting involved in a watch group or attending community meetings.

More often than that, and we will all begin fearing for the future of our neighborhoods.

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