Murder rates in Philadelphia and other cities are all marketing

Philadelphia has developed this reputation: Killadelphia or something like it.

In a prominent New York Times profile of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams last week,  the city was described as having been “battered for years by the worst sort of superlatives — the highest murder rate, the lowest conviction rate.”

What a damaging and sweeping comment that when reiterated and reinterpreted across media — that Philadelphia has been “battered” by having the “highest murder rate,” of what, well, they won’t say — can dramatically impact how the Cradle of Liberty is seen nationally.

Williams is supposed to be a part of a “sea change” in the city’s role of prosecuting criminals — a major Philadelphia Inquirer investigation found, as the Times reported, that “the city had failed to obtain convictions in two-thirds of cases involving violent crimes, and that thousands of cases were dismissed because prosecutors were not prepared or witnesses did not appear.”

So, yes, Philadelphia has a problem convicting criminals and crime is certainly a major sticking point for people living in cities (though I’ll add that violent crime is down nationally and many inner-ring suburbs have been battling increases in gangs and drugs and crime since the 1990s). And this ‘Killadelphia’ reputation doesn’t help… but how accurate the name is remains a point of contention here.

Three points

  1. The overwhelming number of murders are targeted — as I read in a 2007 column from the Inquirer’s Tom Ferrick. Though I can’t quite recreate that point in existing literature or research offhand, it’s intuitive enough that the chances of you catching a stray or being gunned down are quite a bit less likely than we often think. In our cities, mostly poor black boys are killing poor black boys. That’s horrifying but it can be an opportunity to focus our work: rather than fleeing the city, we can be part of a solution.
  2. The overwhelming number of murders happen in neighborhoods most educated, relatively privileged people aren’t going to live. See this 2007 map from the Inquirer. That means we can welcome new people for the purpose of helping our more at-risk fellow neighbors.
  3. The sense of what cities are most dangerous, or at least most murder-ridden, is a remarkable marketing game. We can’t work to solve our city’s problems without people willing and able to be part of the solution.

Killadelphia’s real rap is being the most dangerous big city — with the highest murder and violent crime rates of the country’s 10 largest cities. But it’s hardly the most violent of big cities when taking in to account all of those with a quarter million people or more.

As seen in the chart above, according to 2008 figures, Pittsburgh — often lauded as a functioning, safe Midwest city — has a higher per capita murder rate than Philadelphia — yes, Pittsburgh. So does Washington D.C. St. Louis has double the murder rate and almost always lauded — the music! the food! — New Orleans has nearly three times the rate, though, yes, the post-Katrina apocolypse likely has quite a bit to do with those numbers.

There are two details that need to be settled. First, as all of the country’s crime statistic-collecting agencies are very quick to remind us, crime numbers are just crime numbers. They reflect a sea of variables and are complex matters that no one has actually entirely figured out.

Secondly, Philadelphia — and all U.S. cities — need to aspire to more. Philadelphia ought not settle with being the most violent of the country’s largest cities. With Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, Philadelphia is easily the most culturally significant of American urban centers so it should be far easier for it, like the rest, to be safer than its peers.

It’s just worth noticing how misrepresented these figures can be.

But the skew of violent crime — this perception — so interests me and will surely affect the development of all our cities.

3 thoughts on “Murder rates in Philadelphia and other cities are all marketing”

  1. Pittsburgh isn’t in the Midwest. 2008 was a high year for them as well, not that it changes your basic point. Still, crime is a problem here and yes I know people who have been mugged. While the murder rate is misleading, there’s still more crime than is tolerable. The real question is why DC gets a pass. Those other cities are well known for crime

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