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Michigan By The Numbers: Myths, facts on murder in the Mitten

Every year, the Michigan State Police put out a summary of homicide statistics, culled from policing agencies all over the state.

A dive into the numbers tells a different story on crime in Michigan than conventional wisdom would suggest.

Most victims know their attacker? Not so fast

In a review of 5 years of Michigan homicide statistics, I found that only about one-third of Michigan murder victims had a definitive connection to their killer. The remaining two-thirds are either unknown or “none reported” by law enforcement.

The implication of the idea that murder victims know their attacker is that if you simply get to know the right people, and avoid the wrong ones, you will be just fine. The numbers, unfortunately, do not bear that out.

The “none reported” is particularly galling. If it’s a whodunit, police should mark it as unknown. At least we would know that the police don’t know.

As it stands, we simply do not have enough information available to say that most murder victims know their attacker. We can’t even definitely say that the attacker knew the victim, since homes are broken into daily where the perpetrator doesn’t know the people living there.

Pat Smith of the Michigan Violent Death Reporting System at the Michigan Department of Community Health, offers this caveat: In cases where a suspect is located, often times that suspect will have a relationship to the victim.

As for the accuracy of the numbers and classifications, Wendy Easterbrook of Michigan’s Criminal Justice Information Center (CJIC), which compiles the data, says that CJIC has a “quality control assurance” program that takes a closer look at the reports of 60 law enforcement agencies each year. But at the end of the day, Easterbrook admits, there is “no consequence” for any agency that fails to fill out its paperwork fully.

Men, blacks are the biggest victims

From 2009-2013, men represented 80 percent of all homicide victims in Michigan.

Over that same period, black people were the victims of 71 percent of all the homicides in Michigan.

In 2012, black men were 79 percent of male homicide victims; in 2013, they were 78 percent. Compare that to black women, which were 53 percent of female homicide victims in 2012 and 52 percent in 2013.

Black men and women are both overrepresented as murder victims relative their percentage of the population.

Non-black and non-white Michiganians make up a miniscule percentage of homicide victims.

The argument you avoid could save your life

In homicide cases where the circumstance of the attack is known, arguments are by far the most common origin of most homicides, though typically third on the list behind “other” and “unknown.”

There are no penalties for cities that choose to participate minimally or not at all. This opens the door for shoddy and incomplete paperwork, which allows for a shoddy and incomplete understanding of the circumstances in which Michiganians find themselves willfully killed by another person.

Drug deals, thought the root cause of many murders in Detroit, make up a miniscule percentage of homicides, though this must be at least partially the fault of bad or incomplete record keeping.

For all the policing agencies and state and federal dollars dedicated to drug enforcement, it strains credulity to believe that an endeavor so risky creates only as many homicides as lover’s quarrels (and in 2012, fewer homicides, 12 to 15). Gangland murders are also suspiciously low, which tells me that while the police can’t tell you how many people the mafia had killed, they can tell you how many wiseguys got killed.

“Nothing good happens after midnight”

We’ve all heard the ancient wisdom that nothing good happens after midnight, that that’s when you should be home, safe, and not out at bars or clubs where bad things can happen.

In reality, most Michigan murder victims, some 46 percent from 2009-13, are killed at home, where they should feel safest.

Over that time period, 33 percent of Michigan murder victims were killed were killed on highways, roads, and alleys, the second most common location.

But the number of homicides in which the weapon of choice was a motor vehicle is, typically, extremely low. What explains the difference is that location simply means where the body was found. This includes people gunned down or stabbed or beaten to death in streets or in alleys.

Most years, bars were actually safer places than parking lots and garages.

Some years, bars are safer than fields and wooded areas and comparable to gas stations. There are no doubt places where a good amount of life-ending violence happens in bars and clubs, but Michigan isn’t one of them.

So go out and stay past midnight. You’re safer at the bar than you are at home.

Michigan observes no “Sunday truce”

In season 3 of The Wire, Avon Barksdale’s crew famously broke the “Sunday truce” by shooting at one-man-band Omar Little while he was taking his grandmother to church. I should note that Barksdale’s men were acting against his wishes.

Michiganians, like Barksdale’s crew, do not observe the Sunday truce.

In 2013, Sunday was the third-most murderous day of the week, with 99 of the year’s 631 homicides, or just under 16 percent, taking place on the Lord’s Day. Sunday fell behind only Friday (104) and Saturday (103) in 2013, a year in which some 49 percent of Michigan’s homicides took place on the weekend.

In 2012, Sunday, with 112 of the year’s 681 homicides, well above the monthly average of 97, was actually the most murderous day of the week.

This statistic was not readily available for 2009-11, but will merit a follow-up.

Cold weather equals less killing, most times

While it’s not always true that the hottest weather equates to the most killing, what is true is that the colder the weather gets, the less killing.

In both 2012 and 2013, the years for which monthly data was available, February had the least homicides, comprising 5 percent of the annual total in both years.

And while 2012 started in January with 64 homicides and ended in December with 64, both above the 2012 average of 57, February, March, April, October and November, the other cold months, all saw below-average homicide numbers.

In 2012, September, with 72 homicides, was the most murderous month. In 2013 it was July, with 83 homicides.

These statistics weren’t available for 2009-2011.

The moral of the story

Never, at any point from 2009-2013, do homicide clearances — or even arrests — reach 50 percent. A homicide is considered “cleared” when someone is charged with the crime.

But arrests aren’t charges, charges aren’t convictions, and convictions are no guarantee justice was done.

If you are the victim of a homicide in Michigan, your killer will more than likely never face arrest, be charged with the crime, or be convicted. Who you “know” and who knows you will mean less than the ability of the detectives working the case to piece the story together after the fact.

James Dickson edits The Politics Blogs.