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Detroit's Homicide Rate Plunges, So What Does 'Murder Capital' Really Mean in 2023?

The Motor City is seeing 1960s numbers in killings, but that's still high. So where can we find an apples to apples comparison?

When I was a kid growing up in Detroit, we had a thing called Devil’s Night.

Always on Oct. 30, the “holiday” had been around since the 1960s as a night for light pranks and vandalism preceding Halloween. By the time I came around in the early 1980s, Devil’s Night had devolved into an evening of dangerous, free-for-all crime during which that you’re better off staying indoors -- like “The Purge” without all the legal murder.

Eminem immortalized Devil’s Night by granting the name to his D12 band’s 2001 debut album, and his 2002 film “8 Mile” featured a scene in which his character and friends watched a vacant house burn to the ground on Devil’s Night.

That scene encapsulated my understanding (and fear) of both Devil’s Night and the climate of Detroit until I moved away in 2004 – my hometown was a scary place that required my pops to keep me under lock and key. However, recent news would have me believe that things are (finally) improving.

On Monday (Dec. 4), the city held a press briefing announcing that Detroit is on pace to have the fewest homicides in a year since 1966. Apparently, there were “only” 228 reported homicides in the city from Jan. 1 to Nov. 30, an 18 percent drop from the same period last year. Officials attribute the drop to improved monitoring of gun crime defendants out on bail.

Politically, it makes sense for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan – who was at the briefing with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy and Detroit Police Chief James White, among others – to make everyone believe that the city, which has undergone gentrification the likes of which I never thought I’d see in the last 15 years or so, is now a “safer place.” Indeed, I’m still taken aback when I visit my family in Detroit these days to see young white people walking certain neighborhoods at night.

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But this historic murder drop sounds all dandy until you think about how 200-plus homicides annually in a city with 630,000 residents is still no good. Or you consider a report from the beginning of the year that lists Detroit as the fifth most dangerous American city, under St. Louis, Birmingham, Ala., Baltimore and Memphis.

Dig a bit deeper, and you’ll learn that there are significant flaws in how we discuss safety in American cities.

For starters, there’s a hefty amount of partisanship bias in the often dubious study results that make headlines. For example, the reason a lot of Americans believe that New York is more dangerous than New Orleans – when the former has long since grown out of the lawlessness of the 1980s and 1990s and the latter ended 2022 as the murder capital of the country with 70 murders per 100,000 residents – has a lot to do with right-wing Republicans viewing The Big Apple as an interminable den of iniquity.

In contrast, Democrats believe that Washington D.C. is safer than Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis-poisoned red-state big city Miami. But D.C.’s homicide rate is much lower than Miami’s, having spiked to pre-gentrification levels with its deadliest year in two-plus decades. Empirics-free conclusion-jumping drives the results of many of these surveys.

The other problem is that we don’t have honest conversations about the drivers behind murder and other crime. Take Chicago, my adoptive city: It makes national headlines at least a few times a year because everyone is convinced they’ll catch a bullet as soon as they step off a plane at O’Hare International.

There are so many nuances that influence crime and the subsequent data – specifically, population density, geography, local laws and underreporting of crime. Chicago is a notoriously racially segregated city that razed most of its housing projects, displacing gangs that resided in those areas to blend in with gangs in other areas, leading to a powder keg of violence.

But few outsiders understand that the violence in Chicago is mostly contained to a handful of neighborhoods, and that the 2.5 million-plus residents of the city aren’t existing in a Gaza Strip-esque environment.

In contrast, Columbia, Md., where one of my best friends lives and which U.S. News & World Report deemed the safest city in America, is a Build-a-Bear suburban town of just over 100,000 with zero character or culture. There should never be an apples-to-apples comparison of Columbia to any crime-plagued major city.

Sure, I never once worried about my safety when jogging through Columbia, but I’d be far more concerned about a white male mass shooter taking his problems out on me there than in Chicago or Detroit. Apples and donuts.

 Like Detroit, Chicago also reported a notable drop in homicides in 2023. But both cities rank high on “most dangerous” lists for reasons both valid and not. Any drop in bodies is a good thing, so kudos to my hometown for these “historic” numbers. But I’ll still never set foot in the “Murda” McDonalds on Joy Rd. and the Southfield Freeway service drive at night.

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Dustin J. Seibert is an opinion writer and native Detroiter living in Chicago and Miami. He loves his mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him on Instagram and the erstwhile Twitter: @Justice2K.

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