Crime crisis in Detroit; myth or mayhem?


The following transcript originated with an extremely interesting piece posted by my good friend Dr. Lester Spence on his blog site Blacksmythe. The article can – and should – be read here. 

Basically the question posed in Dr. Spence’s piece is whether or not our neighborhoods are really that much worse today than we remember them as kids. Many of us who are somewhat older (trying to give us a break, here) tend to remember our childhood play days as times when our parents rarely had to worry if we were away down the street or out riding our bikes or whatever. Today the situation appears to be much different, and the parents who cherish those memories bemoan the feeling that their children can’t enjoy the carefree joys of childhoods that they remember.

But Dr. Spence poses the question whether this terrified view of the current situation is necessarily accurate, or is it an overheated match that has been fanned into a forest fire? Personally, I believe things really have gotten that much worse, and that’s not just gut feeling. I have a few acquaintances who are either in the police department or who have connections there and elsewhere. What I have heard from them is that what makes crime in Detroit such a troubling issue today is that it is much more random. As told Dr. Spence, I don’t have hard numbers, but I tend to believe what I’m hearing.

Dr. Spence would urge that we question that info a little harder before screaming “Mayday!”, and he makes a number of good points. It was his suggestion to post our little back-and-forth, and I thought it was a good one.

So with no further ado…

After reading Dr. Spence’s piece, this was my response…

“Hey Lester.

Nope, it’s not an illusion. It’s much worse out here now than when we were kids. I agree that screaming headlines can make the problem loom even larger, but that doesn’t mean the headlines are completely off-base. Why is it worse? I’m not sure, and I might as well admit that. But there’s no questioning how much worse it has become.”

To which Dr. Spence responded on June 21…

"When you say "way out of control" what do you mean? When I lived there Detroit  was the murder capital of the US. And looking over the last thirty years Detroit  has arguably always been in the top five.   So are the numbers five times worse? Ten times worse?  Better question. Of those crimes, how often have they involved random strangers?    If it's in the should be in the numbers. But I don't think they  are. There is a sense that crime is 'random' but I don't think that sense is  born out by the numbers. It may well be random, but not more random that it was  before."

At which point, I replied on the same day…

“Lester, You’re right, Detroit has always been at least in the top 5 for at least 30 years. That’s true. What has changed, and this gets to the second part of your question, is that more of the crimes are agaisnt random strangers than before. My understanding from folks who work in the police department is that even though the crime situation in Detroit has never been good, most crimes in earlier years – particularly murders – were more likely to occur between folks who knew one another or were at least acquainted. Now there are many more crimes that are random attacks. I’m sorry I don’t have exact figures and percentages for you, which would make it more precise. But the sources of info where I’m getting this from are pretty reliable, or at least I believe them to be. But in any case, you’re right to hold my feet to the fire. It’s always good to be able to back up what you say.”

Then Dr. Spence said…

Keith you should have posted this comment. When I said ‘prove it’ and then asked if you knew what I mean,what I was suggesting wasn’t that you literally prove it to me. Well, I was…but there are a number of ways you can tell someone ‘prove it.’ If that makes sense. And this conversation is good for other people to see. I’m thinking that the data is right here. There is likely more random violence. But what does that mean? In social science we have findings that are “statistically significant.”  If I were to find a statistically significant relationship between X and Y, what this means is that the odds of that relationship appearing due to chance are extremely low. And then we also have findings that are ‘substantially significant.’ That is to say the actual finding itself (if it is a number) is really large. Now it’s possible to have something be ‘statistically significant’ but NOT ‘substantially significant (the opposite isn’t possible)’. And I think that’s what is occurring here.  Let’s say the odds of you being involved in a drive by shooting were 1000 to 1 ten years ago.  let’s say that they are 500 to 1 now. those are STILL pretty long odds. So what’s happening that makes such a more probable but STILL unlikely event loom so large in our psyche?”

And then finally, on Dr. Spence’s blog…

  "So offline, Keith told me that members of Detroit’s police department have informed him that crime appears to be more random than it used to be. And on one level I can see that. I’m not sure this will show up in the BOJ data, and like Bruce I’m not necessarily trying to dig into that thicket unless I’m writing a paper on it. But again how much more random? If the odds of being a victim of a violent crime are 1 in 50,000….and all of a sudden something happens (increase in drug consumption, increase in unemployment, decrease in parks and rec funds, increase in hypersegregation, etc.) that makes this number ten times worse, what happens? Instead of 1 in 50,000, that number becomes 1 in 5,000. which is STILL very very very small. The increase in crime narratives, in dramatic television, in radio and music videos, and on the local news creates a climate of fear. The increase in surveillance technology (here I include cell phones though they weren’t designed for this particular purpose) increases our perceived ability to control and surveil our kids. The increased suburbanization of living–kids don’t play frozen tag outside anymore because all play has been privatized (ymca, nintendo and the like). That combination along with other things makes it very difficult for us to let our children out of our sight.”

If you believe this is an important discussion as I do – and as Dr. Spence does – then please feel free to join in and let me – or Dr. Spence – know your thoughts.


~ by Keith A. Owens on June 25, 2007.

4 Responses to “Crime crisis in Detroit; myth or mayhem?”

  1. […] Read more here… […]

  2. I’m always amaze when we try a comparison,the variables are different,where are we getting the imformations,take child abuse at one time that was practically non existence, not that it didn’t occur but it wasn’t reported.Crime was not reported in the mainstream media that was purpertraded against a citizen unless you live in neighborhood you would not know.

  3. Hey Tootsie.

    That’s a very good point that I didn’t even consider and should have. You’re right that a lot of stuff that used to go under the radar – and still does go under the radar – except for certain areas. Thanks for bringing that up.

  4. […] Crime crisis in Detroit; myth or mayhem? ” The “D” Spot The article can – and should – be read here. … African American (Black) Opinion Blog ” Blog Archive ” Detroit crime crisis; myth or mayhem? … […]

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