Data Wonk

Why is Milwaukee’s Murder Rate Increasing?

Systemic problems, the COVID-19 pandemic and policing failures appear to be responsible.

By - Oct 13th, 2021 05:28 pm
Crime Scene Tape. (CC0 Public Domain)

Crime Scene Tape. (CC0 Public Domain)

Milwaukee, like other American cities, is experiencing a peak in firearm shootings, fatal and nonfatal. This can be seen in the graph below in which nonfatal shootings are shown in blue, homicides by firearm in green, and other kinds of homicide in red. The numbers on the chart are the annual totals of all three between the years of 2010 and 2020. Last year’s surge in shootings ended a string of declining homicides and nonfatal shootings.

Milwaukee Full-Year Homicides and Nonfatal Shootings

Milwaukee Full-Year Homicides and Nonfatal Shootings

Year-to-date data, in the graph below, show that the surge is continuing. So far this year, homicides and nonfatal shootings are double the rate from two years ago.

Year-to-date Homicides and Nonfatal Shootings

Year-to-date Homicides and Nonfatal Shootings

These numbers and those that follow come from a recently released dashboard from the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission and the Medical College of Wisconsin. Up until 2015, the commission published a semi-annual report on shootings, and their victims and suspects. In 2015, the reports stopped. As a believer that solutions to problems start with data, I was disappointed by that decision. It is good to have it back, especially in the midst of a crisis in shootings.

The dashboard also has considerable data on Milwaukee’s 316 identified suspects and 778 victims so far in 2021. It is striking how similar they are.

For example, the next graph summarizes the race, ethnicity, and sex of 2021’s suspects and victims identified so far. 12% of both suspects (shown in green) and victims (in yellow) were white. 88% of both were Black. The fractions of Hispanic suspects and victims were also similar. (Although there is space on the dashboard for Asians and Native Americans, apparently none were involved in these incidents.

Not surprisingly, the story is somewhat different for the sexes. A female is more likely to be a victim of violence than a suspect. That said, she is much safer than is a male.

Demographics, ethnicity, and gender of suspects and victims

Demographics, Ethnicity, and Gender of Suspects and Victims

For comparison, here is a breakdown of the Milwaukee population by demographics based on data on the city’s website. It is notable that Black people are way overrepresented among both suspects and victims of violence, while white people are underrepresented.

It is worth noting that the dashboard and the city’s website differ in their treatment of Hispanics. The chart below treats Hispanics as a separate category, along with whites and Blacks. By contrast, the review commission adopts the increasingly common practice of treating it as an ethnicity in a separate overlay. Thus, Hispanic suspects and victims would also be included among the whites and Blacks.

Milwaukee Demographic/Ethnic Breakdown

Milwaukee Demographic/Ethnic Breakdown

In addition to closely matching by race and ethnicity, victims and suspects also match each other by age, as shown by the graph below. The person most in danger of becoming a victim of violence is a young adult Black male.

Age of suspects and victims

Age of Suspects and Victims

The amount of violence varies widely from one neighborhood to another. The next scatter plot shows homicides versus nonfatal shootings for Milwaukee’s fifteen Common Council districts. Districts 15, 7, 6, 1, and 2, the five districts shown in the upper right corner account for three quarters of both.

Nonlethal shootings vs homicides

Nonlethal Shootings vs Homicides

The map below shows the locations of the Common Council districts. Given the previous discussion about racial disparities, it is not surprising that districts 15, 7, 6, 1, and 2 are also the districts with the highest percentages of Black residents.

Common Council districts

Common Council districts

By contrast, districts 8 and 12 have the highest Hispanic populations. Yet that concentration does not seem to have resulted in elevated violence, at least compared to the five districts with high numbers of Black residents.

The graph below lists the six most common factors that led to the homicide or nonfatal shooting. In over a third of the cases, the resort to firearms resulted from an argument or fight. If those classified as unknown are excluded, arguments and fights account for more than half.

Primary factor

Primary Factor

These data raise more questions than solutions. One is what accounts for the increase in shootings in 2020 and 2021? The most likely culprit seems to be the COVID-19 pandemic.

But what specifically about the pandemic caused the surge? Is it a reaction to the danger of getting sick or dying? Or does the surge in shootings stem from isolation from friends and family?

As more of the population gets vaccinated and the virus becomes less threatening, will the surge reverse itself? Even if the virus recedes, the long-term challenge of gun violence is likely to remain.

A major problem for cities like Milwaukee is the flood of handguns. Evidence for that assertion is offered by Milwaukee’s experience. As the next chart shows, handguns are the weapon of choice for inflicting death or injury.

2020-2021 Cause of death or injury

2020-2021 Cause of Death or Injury

Any effective policy would include strategies to reduce the availability of handguns. Instead, members of the Wisconsin legislature seem intent on getting handguns into the hands of people unable to handle them responsibly. Consider recently introduced legislation that removes a requirement that anyone from out of state carrying a concealed weapon be from a state that performs background checks as part of issuing a concealed carry permit. It would allow out of state visitors that have not undergone a background check for their concealed permit to legally carry a concealed weapon in Wisconsin.

The data seem to show that in most cases the shooter does not go with the intent of killing someone. The purpose of carrying the gun is safety. When an argument develops or in response to an insult, a gun is produced.

In Milwaukee and other cities, gun culture feeds on itself. Most directly, in the sense that if others are likely to be armed, one begins to feel the need to also be armed.

Finally, the reasons behind the prevalence of homicide and shooting in the Black community needs addressing. Economically the Hispanic community has many of the same challenges. It seems likely that the often-fraught relations between the police and Black communities are part of the reason. If one cannot trust the authorities to settle disputes, doing it yourself may become attractive. Acting Chief Jeffrey Norman’s emphasis on community policing seems promising.

2 thoughts on “Data Wonk: Why is Milwaukee’s Murder Rate Increasing?”

  1. NieWiederKrieg says:

    Why is Milwaukee’s murder rate increasing?

    Have you ever listened to the violent “rap music” that America’s music industry has directed at the men, women, and children who live in urban Milwaukee?

    The lyrics glorify drugs, sex, violence, racism, murder, rape, guns, death, lawlessness, profanity, robbery, car jacking, torture, beatings, knifing, throat cutting, sodomy, gangs, assassination, drive by shooting, strangulation, etc… Here are 50 rap lyrics that will make you cringe –

    All the famous rappers are covered with tattoos from head to toe and most of them belong to violent drug gangs… Little 5 year old kids grow up listening this “music”. It’s everywhere in the schools.. on the radio… on the streets… It’s shoved into your face by corporate media… Kids can’t wait until they get their first tattoo.. their first gun… their first taste of crystal meth.. they’re brainwashed…

    Popular rappers are so violent that they kill each other on a regular basis.. Then they become legend and their music becomes legend.. There’s a Wiki page for dead rappers and it gets updated daily…

    Violent “rap music” is played loudly everywhere in urban Milwaukee.. No wonder why people are killing each other… Maye if people starting playing Beatles’ music, we’d have peace and love instead of death, crime, and violence.

  2. frank a schneiger says:

    Here is a thought about this horrific trend. It is about something that is probably not quantifiable. This trend is, at least in part, about hopelessness as a driver of violence in isolated communities. Hyper-segregated neighborhoods where, in post-industrial Milwaukee, large numbers of people have given up hope after generations of living in poverty, and receiving the ongoing message that they are less than they are.

    Add to that the belief among the people who count, across races, that it’s not that big a deal because “they’re killing each other.” Add to that the easy access to guns. And finally add to that a sense of victimization in Black communities, which, however well-earned, allows people to justify anything they do based on what’s been done to them. And, since these communities are so isolated, the resulting rage and indifference to others all gets turned inward.

    If this is at all accurate, part of any solution has to be to give people some hope for a better future.

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