Data Wonk

Murder in Milwaukee

What do the statistics tell us about homicides and why they happen?

By - Jun 9th, 2016 12:15 pm

The recently issued Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission’s 2015 Annual Report on Homicides and Non-Fatal Shootings contains a wealth of information on where homicides occur and who are the victims and perpetrators. For starters, homicides and non-fatal shootings are heavily concentrated in certain neighborhoods. The following map, taken from the report, shows the firearm incident density—homicides and non-fatal shootings superimposed on a map of poverty.

Firearm Incident Density.

Firearm Incident Density.

The report can help give an idea of who the victims are. First, they are far more likely to be male than female, as shown in the next graph, showing homicides and nonfatal shootings in 2015. (The Journal-Sentinel publishes an on-going database of homicides. So far, the profile of victims and suspects for 2016 looks a lot like that for 2015.)

Effect of Gender.

Effect of Gender.

The next graph shows the relationship of age to the likelihood of being a victim (either fatal or nonfatal) of a shooting. It shows the relationship of the age of the victim and the number of homicides (in gray), of non-fatal shootings (in blue), and total shootings (in red).

Victims by Age.

Victims by Age.

The report divides the victims by age ranges. For example, 200 victims of shootings (both fatal and nonfatal) were between age 20 and 24, or an average of 40 per year for each of the five years in this range. Thus I plotted 40 at the range’s midpoint, 22.5 years. The most vulnerable period falls between the late teens and late twenties.

The chance of being a victim also varies widely with ethnicity. The next graph shows the rate per 100,000 of being murdered or suffering a nonfatal shooting.

Rates of Homicides and Non-fatal Shootings.

Rates of Homicides and Non-fatal Shootings.

Put these factors together and Milwaukee’s most vulnerable residents are young black males from their late teens to late twenties. The report calculates that between age 15 and 24 they suffer a homicide rate of 187 per 100,000 and a nonfatal shooting rate of 1,109. Put another way, they have well over a 1 percent chance of being shot during every one of those ten years.

Lacking all those factors, the chances of being shot go way down even if one lives in the same dangerous neighborhood. The tragedy of nine-year-old Za’layia Jenkins, who was shot and died while watching television, gained so much attention in part because her case was so unusual. She did not fit the profile of most victims but was caught in the cross-fire.

Who are the perpetrators of the homicides and nonfatal shootings? A plot of suspects shows a similar pattern. As with victims, the numbers rise rapidly in the late teens, peaking in the twenties, and falling thereafter.

The next chart of this series compares victims and suspects. The gap between victims and suspects reflects Milwaukee’s clearance rate of 60 percent which, while better than the national average, means about 40 percent of perpetrators are not identified.

Victims and Suspects by Age.

Victims and Suspects by Age.

Like their victims, the suspects are likely to be male and black. This is consistent with the next finding, that suspects and victims are likely to have known each other. As the next graph shows, around 70 percent know each other, either as acquaintances or family members.

These and other findings listed in the report are reflected in Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn’s list of four risk factors:

  • Don’t be part of a crime gang or crew
  • Don’t be a drug dealer
  • Don’t illegally carry a gun
  • And finally, “If you are in an argument with a stranger, ask them how often they’ve been arrested. If they’ve been arrested more often than you’ve been arrested, concede the point.”

Although Flynn’s list was criticized by members of the Common Council, it is good advice. A young man following those rules vastly reduces his chances of being shot. As the case of Za’layia Jenkins shows, those who ignore this advice make their neighborhoods more dangerous and are a threat to people who are just minding their own business.

The next chart shows the five largest causes of shootings, both fatal and nonfatal. To some extent, the categories are arbitrary, but they (and others not shown) seem to fall into one of two broad categories:

  • Crimes of the moment, such as an argument or the urge to revenge a slight.
  • Shootings committed as part of a crime such as robbery or drug dealing.
The Five Biggest Causes of Shootings.

The Five Biggest Causes of Shootings.

The first cause is much more likely to lead to death than the second. This fits in with Flynn’s last point. The majority of suspects already have a criminal record. Although the proportion is smaller, the same is true of the victims.

Only eight of the suspects identified in 2015 shootings had no criminal history. In part this might reflect the fact it is harder for the police to identify suspects not already in their files. With that caveat, this result supports Flynn’s last point. 38 percent of shootings by suspects with criminal records result in death, compared to 13 percent of those by people with no prior record.

Suspect and Criminal History - Victims and Criminal History

Suspect and Criminal History – Victims and Criminal History

The report devotes a single page to four strategies aimed at reducing the homicide rate in Milwaukee. These are in various stages of development and it is not clear at this point how effective they will be.

Weapon in Homicides.

Weapon in Homicides.

In Milwaukee, guns—mostly handguns—were the weapon of choice in homicides, as can be seen in the next chart showing the kind of weapon used in last year’s homicides. Would a program to reduce the availability of guns be effective in reducing Milwaukee’s homicide rate?

Most studies show a strong correlation between the availability of guns and homicides. Some of these studies were summarized in a previous Data Wonk article.

A recent article in Slate surveys research on the question of whether having a gun makes one safer.

  • A study published in 2014 in the journal Injury Prevention examined the relationship between the prevalence of guns and homicide rates in the USA and “found that state-level gun ownership … is significantly associated with firearm and total homicides but not with non-firearm homicides.”
  • A 2013 study analyzed the relationship between gun ownership rates in developed countries and gun deaths. It summarized its findings as follows: “The number of guns per capita per country was a strong and independent predictor of firearm-related death in a given country, whereas the predictive power of the mental illness burden was of borderline significance in a multivariable model. Regardless of exact cause and effect, however, the current study debunks the widely quoted hypothesis that guns make a nation safer.”
  • A 2004 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found “that regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.”

Although the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission report does not attempt to estimate the gun density for differing neighborhoods, it seems likely that the myth that guns make one safer acts to make these neighborhoods more dangerous. Both Milwaukee and its neighbor Chicago have suffered a recent surge of gun violence. Both cities are surrounded by jurisdictions where it is easy to buy a gun.

Organizations like the National Rifle Association likely contributed to the surge in gun deaths in several ways, such as fighting measures to reduce the availability of guns, by spreading the myth that having a gun makes one safer, and by discouraging research on the connection between the availability of guns and gun homicides.

In Milwaukee, the violence is concentrated in a small geographic area, one with a high rate of poverty, a high unemployment rate, and a dearth of jobs. This area, as with similarly impoverished areas in other cities, suffers a vicious cycle: high crime drives away potential employers while the lack of jobs contributes to crime. Any effective strategy to reduce the violence would have to include increased availability of public service jobs, given the difficulty of attracting private sector employers.

Rather than scapegoating the police for the spike in homicides, Milwaukee needs to extend the research to discover strategies that work.

16 thoughts on “Data Wonk: Murder in Milwaukee”

  1. “Organizations like the National Rifle Association likely contributed to the surge in gun deaths ”

    In fact, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics gun deaths have plummeted from a high point in the early 1990’s.

  2. Tim says:

    And here comes Tommy B, the professional contrarian. Yeah, why should we care that so many people are dying of gunfire today… I mean, you kids just don’t have it like we used to. Stop your belly-aching!

  3. AG says:

    Chicago is a perfect example of how local gun bans can’t create enough impact to affect homicide rates. Gun homicides are a symptom anyway. We need to lock up criminals and enforce our current laws, we need to encourage more job creation, we need to find a way to teach people work ethics, we need to improve school performance, but most of all, we need to change the culture in some circles that success is possible and that a stable family unit is a key driver to success. Additional gun control laws are a waste if you’re not going to look at the real causes.

  4. WashCoRepub says:

    So to sum it up, people are shooting each other because of the NRA and because there aren’t enough government jobs.


  5. Tim, contrary to what?

    Not the facts — the facts are contrary to what has become “common wisdom.”

  6. Mathew Lengyel says:

    The one major failure of this study was to evaluate the race of those convicted of homicide and the race of the victims. You have everything else and I think you left race out purposely because you don’t like the message these racial trends in crime send. When an organization like yours does this deliberately – it’s called paternalism because you think that the public is too stupid to interpret data correctly or that people will arrive at conclusions that you seek to eliminate. If you left race out of this study purposely, I find this insulting, demeaning and intellectually dishonest. You might as well just shout to everyone that you don’t want to hear the facts because they contest your strongly held beliefs! If you’re beliefs are in-deed correct, they should stand-up to the test of facts. Racial statistics on crime in America (according to the DOJ & FBI) show that roughly 6% of the population (black males) are responsible for nearly 53% of homicides in this country. Black men are eight times more likely to commit murder than all white and Hispanic men put together. The violence in the black community is staggering and that inconvenient little fact is why I think you deliberately did not include race in your study when it should have been.

  7. Penrod says:

    Tim (2), if the general availability of guns drives up shooting rates, why has the national homicide rate dropped by 49% since 1990, while the number of guns in the country increased by half?

    It is pretty clearly not the case that law abiding people having easy access to guns provokes them into shooting people.

    As for suicides, especially during the first year of gun ownership: People who are serious about suicide use effective means. It is far more likely that suicidal people buy a gun, rather than that buying one’s first gun drives one to suicide.

  8. happyjack27 says:

    I just think that convicted criminals shouldn’t have to have show id and have background checks to purchase a gun. That just makes it easier for them to get one.

    It’s sad that I actually have to say that that was sarcasm.

  9. David Krueger says:

    Thank you to the commentators that were strong enough in their beliefs to post their full names – respect.

    I strongly agree with AG, “a stable family unit is a key driver to success”. and “Additional gun control laws are a waste if you’re not going to look at the real causes.”

    AG, You have something to say and you’re right. I hope some day you’ll have the confidence to support your own thoughts by posting your full name.

  10. Rich says:

    @Mathew Lengyel, #6: The linked actual study (not this summary) has data on race of both victims and suspects (pages 41 and 46, respectively). Now, admittedly, suspects does not equal those convicted and there are gaps due to the average 60% clearance rate, but I fail to understand what you think is missing?

  11. Tom D says:

    Penrod (post 7):

    You ask “why has the national homicide rate dropped by 49% since 1990, while the number of guns in the country increased by half?”

    First, the numbers I found don’t show a 49% homicide drop since 1990, but only a 39% drop (from 23,440 to 14,249), and that if you exclude New York City (which toughened its gun laws since 1990), the decline is only 34% (21,195 to 13,921).

    While EVEN a 34% decline in homicides (amid increased gun ownership) sounds impressive, it pales compared to NYC’s 85% homicide decline over the same period. In many ways, NYC has tougher gun laws than Chicago, and thanks to 20 years of anti-gun mayors—Giuliani (1994-2001) and Bloomberg (2002-2015)— NYC has made those laws even tougher. (Giuliani was anti-gun while mayor and “changed his mind” only after leaving office and deciding to run for president.)

    Another thing that has really helped NYC (compared to, say, Chicago) is tough gun laws in neighboring states; every state bordering NYS (and also every state bordering those states) also has relatively tough gun laws. By contrast, Indiana (within walking distance of Chicago) has super-lax gun laws.

    NYC’s experience shows that we could have reduced homicides even more with tougher gun laws.

  12. Tom D says:

    Here are the links showing my data. I’m posting them separately because posts on this site with multiple links tend to get delayed.

    National homicide data:

    NYC homicide data:
    (scroll down to “Murders by year”)

    Information on where (which states) are major sources of illegal guns (due to lax laws):

  13. AG says:

    David Krueger, thanks for the comments. The reason I don’t use my real name though is not for lack of confidence. Instead, it is because people tend to make assumptions about your position based on what they think they know about you. Being anonymous helps with that to some degree.

    Tom D, NYC has had strict gun laws for over a 100 years. You can’t explain the drop in homicides through their gun laws. It had far more to do with the broken windows philosophy than anything else. Unfortunately, that strategy is not very politically correct anymore.

  14. Vincent Hanna says:

    Broken windows isn’t politically correct for a reason AG, and there’s still a lot of debate about how effective it truly is.

  15. Thomas Spellman says:

    This is a short piece about the root cause of Violent Behavior and will gladly share the rest with anyone who is interested Tom Spellman 414 403 1341

    As I see it, there are two sides of the equation for quality education – the academic side and the behavioral side. As I have suggested above let us examine the behavioral side to see if it bears fruit.

    The controlling element on the behavioral side may seem at first not to be that important. I have come to the conclusion that the unresolved abuse/trauma that some children suffer is the controlling element for the dysfunction of the child. We know there is unresolved abuse/trauma because we see the belligerent behavior which results in the classroom disruptions, the suspensions, and the expulsions.

    Some will argue that part of those disruptions are the fault of the “ineffective” teacher, but that begs the question because surely not all of the disruption (i.e. belligerent behavior) is the result of “ineffective” teaching/teachers.*

    The work of Dr. Lonnie Athens lays out very clearly that unresolved abuse/trauma is the foundation to all violent behavior. What Dr. Athens also observed, and is critical for all educators AND ALL OF US to understand, is that all abused/traumatized individuals who have NOT RESOLVED their abuse/trauma will become belligerent – will become so angry that they begin to act out. That acting out is either external – against others – or internal – against themselves.

    What is critical to understand is that the belligerent behavior must NOT be seen as an affront to authority BUT SEEN as a child’s CRY FOR HELP. The “CRY” is no different from a baby’s cry. In large part we know how to respond to a baby’s cry. WHAT WE DO NOT KNOW, IS HOW TO RESPOND TO A CHILD’S BELLIGERENT BEHAVIOR. We need to learn how to positively respond to a child’s belligerent behavior!!

    This one change has the potential to change many if not most of the abuse/trauma outcomes.

    First to see the belligerent behavior as a cry for help and then to understand that the student’s UNRESOLVED abuse/trauma must be resolved.

    Also we respond very differently to a person who is crying for help, than one, who seems to us to be challenging our authority or more basically our safety.

    Dr. Athens’ work is most easily understood in “Why They Kill” written by Richard Rhodes. In Chapters 10 and 11, Rhodes explains Athens’ theory. Unresolved abuse/trauma is the underlying cause of violent behavior and all who are first abused/traumatized become belligerent before they become violent. The first nine chapters of the book are a biography of Dr. Lonnie Athens which explains how he came to understand what he was observing, as he did his research with prisoners who had committed violent crimes.

  16. Donald George MacDonald says:

    Don’t only blame the usually youthful perpetrators of crime in the City of Milwaukee.

    Also harshly condemn the environment our youths have been born in and raised in and continue to live in simply because of the color of beautiful brown skin and because of the cultural shades that are different than white.

    Also harshly condemn our many city and county and state politicians wearing their superior suits and ties who have, for many decades, chosen to turn their eyes and minds and hearts away from the the suffering caused by inequality, poverty and discrimination…to emotionally isolate and physically segregate themselves from injustices and racism believed too complicated for them to want to try to understand…from solutions feared too difficult for us to want to try to achieve together.

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