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Does a record-low homicide count mean Detroiters are safer?

A group of people standing together for photos. Several of the people are wearing police uniforms, most are wearing suits. A backdrop can be partly seen behind them with small "City of Detroit" logos.
Briana Rice
Michigan Public
State, federal and local partners, including Alia Harvey-Quinn from FORCE Detroit, pose with Detroit Police Chief James White at a press conference announcing a drop in violent crime in 2023.

Officials took to a podium inside Detroit Police headquarters last Wednesday to tout a significant drop in crime. Mayor Mike Duggan said he is pleased by what a “remarkable year” 2023 was.

“Across America, you're seeing violent crime coming down off of the COVID peaks,” he said. “What is different in Detroit is we're not coming down off the COVID peaks. Our homicide numbers are below the pre-COVID levels.”

Detroit Police said preliminary data show 2023 had significantly fewer shootings (down 15%) and carjackings (down 33%) than the year prior. The year’s homicide total was 252 — an 18% reduction from 2022 and the lowest total since 1966, when officials say there were 232 homicides. But crime statistics can be more complicated than they look.

Using raw totals to compare different years – especially different decades — leaves out some important context, like changes in Detroit's population.

Detroit had a lot more people in the 1960s: nearly 1.7 million, according to the U.S. Census. That’s more than double the city’s population of 620,376 in 2022 estimates.

That difference really matters, said Oakland University Criminal Justice Program Director and sociologist Wendi Johnson, “because … the more people you have, the more opportunity you're going to have for homicides to occur.”

Homicide rates, calculated using the city’s population, can provide a much more accurate look at the numbers over time. 1966’s rate is 13.9 per 100,000 people, while 2023’s rate is triple that at 39.4. But Johnson cautions against putting too much weight on that comparison.

“Detroit was a very different city back in 1966,” she said. “Demographically the city was different. Economically … we haven't even touched on gun laws and legislation and the proliferation of guns in this country that has changed since 1966.”

While the 2023 homicide rate is not as historically low as the raw totals may make it seem, the fact that it is on par with pre-pandemic rates is “good news,” Johnson said.

“It's not unusual for us to sort of see that noise, that variation in crime in response to certain social crises,” she added. “We know from history that eventually we learn to cope. We do find ways of adapting and things do eventually settle down.”

Duggan and other officials attributed a lot of the city’s drop in violence between 2022 and 2023 to police department efforts, such as a $10,000 raise for officers, an expansion of ShotSpotter technology in the city, and clearing a court backlog of felony gun cases.

“It's one thing to get more officers. It's another thing to have a department that deploys those officers in a way that reduces gun violence,” Duggan said. “And that's what Chief (James) White and DPD have done.”

Oakland University’s Wendi Johnson said it is hard to definitively pin blame or give credit for any change in crime numbers because there are so many factors that could be at play.

“Things like social unrest, social changes,” she said. “It can include policing behaviors and police policies, certainly. But it can also include things like economic stress or economic improvements.”

Researchers can and do take a closer look at certain programs or other factors like the ones Johnson described to try and figure out how they affect crime levels. Three programs undertaken by Detroit Police, including Project Greenlight and Ceasefire, have been rated as having “no effect” by the federal National Institute of Justice based on recent studies.

The department also credited a new partnership with local organizations for 2023’s crime drop. The program gives the organizations $175,000 and potentially more money each quarter to focus on crime reduction in their communities.

FORCE Detroit is one of the six organizations chosen to participate in this new program, called ShotStoppers.

Alia Harvey-Quinn founded and directs FORCE Detroit – an organization focused on harm reduction in Cody Rouge, a mostly Black and low-income neighborhood on Detroit’s west side.

That work includes connecting folks with job opportunities, providing basic household needs, passing out free gun locks, and even relocation fees for community members who aren’t safe in their homes.

Harvey-Quinn said the efforts of her organization, and others like it, are starting to be felt in the community.

“I think the people who are driving this work understand the nature of violence,” she said. “What we're hearing from the community is that they are beginning to see an impact, and they're beginning to feel safer. And that matters deeply, deeply, deeply to us.”

Harvey-Quinn said she has seen police attribute crime drops to a lot of different strategies over the last decade, with little change in areas facing the most violence.

Still, she said these newly released police stats are promising. She’s hopeful organizations like hers can do the work needed to address the violence that has shadowed Detroit for decades.

“We are able to de-escalate people from violent incidents. But we've got to offer them hope,” she said. “And hope comes in the form of, you know, job opportunities. It comes in the form of basic needs, support.”

Briana Rice is Michigan Public's criminal justice reporter. She's focused on what Detroiters need to feel safe and whether they're getting it.
Large sets of numbers add up to peoples’ stories. As Michigan Public’s Data Reporter, Adam Yahya Rayes seeks to sift through noisy digits to put the individuals and policies that make up our communities into perspective.
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