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A murder statistic to applaud and improve upon

Policing, trends help Charlotte hit 24-year low in homicides.

In 2012, fewer people were murdered in Charlotte than in any year since 1978, almost a quarter century ago. It’s an improvement to applaud, and it certainly comes in part from successful police strategies, but it also provides a window into how our city can do even better.

The numbers: 52 people were killed in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, down from 75 in 2007 and 122 in 1993. Cities across the country, with some exceptions, have experienced similar declines as the nationwide homicide rate has dropped to its lowest point in 50 years. What’s behind the drop? Experts say several factors are likely contributors, UNC Charlotte criminology professor Robert Brame told the editorial board Friday.

High on the list is a five-fold increase in incarcerations since the 1970s. “A lot of dangerous people are locked up in prison,” Brame said. Another possibility: The population has gotten older – the U.S. median age of 37 years is seven years older than it was 30 years ago – and homicide offenders and victims are disproportionately younger. Also, trauma care has improved so dramatically that a homicide from 40 years ago is sometimes just an aggravated assault today.

While those factors might explain the long-term homicide trend, the more recent and dramatic drop might also be due to changes in policing strategy and technology. In Charlotte and other cities, police have placed an emphasis on disrupting gangs and taking habitual criminals off the streets, and officials have become more adept users of technology to monitor high-crime areas and learn predictive crime patterns.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe also has smartly adopted a neighborhood-driven approach since he arrived in 2008, assigning more officers back into Charlotte’s communities, where they can build relationships and more intimately know their territory. That couldn’t happen without more money from the city – CMPD’s budget has increased 23 percent since 2007, helping the department to grow to 1,788 sworn officers, almost 250 more than five years ago.

All of which, of course, doesn’t ease the hurt for families who’ve lost loved ones to murder. “We still consider the loss of even one life one too many,” Monroe said in a statement last week. Homicide rates also should be kept in perspective; they don’t paint the whole picture of how safe a community is. But because murder rates are not subject to the reporting ambiguities of other crime statistics, they can provide a clearer clue of how police – and a community as a whole – are doing.

Charlotte’s numbers also were a reminder of troubling reality: Two divisions in high-crime communities – North Tryon and Metro – accounted for more than a third of the city’s 2012 killings. That shouldn’t be surprising; studies show that the most serious crime problems are concentrated in areas where residents have limited opportunity to break out of poverty.

If we want homicide and other crime rates to continue to improve, the answer lies not only in good policing, but a strong public commitment to sound schools and other opportunities. This week brought numbers – and good police work – to applaud, but they’re also a reminder of the work we have left to do.

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