Macon-Bibb coroner shares thoughts on why homicide rate high in 2018
Rates of homicide have been on the rise in Macon-Bibb County for the past three years, and while the violence is getting worse compared to the nation as whole, it still exhibits a general trend downward from the local and national peaks in the 1990s.
That’s the conclusion of an analysis performed by students in a data journalism class at Mercer University. By obtaining and compiling data from multiple sources, students were able to compare the homicide rate per 100,000 people in Macon-Bibb with that of the nation from 1985 to the near-present. The result is the fullest, most up-to-date picture possible of local homicides in their historical context.
Homicide is far more prevalent in Macon-Bibb than it is in the nation as a whole, however that is commonly true for urban areas, particularly those with high rates of poverty. Regarding the long-term trends, homicide remains broadly in decline locally as it is nationally, but that decline has been slower in Macon-Bibb.
Converting the national rate to a baseline, it’s easier to compare how much worse the violence is locally. While violence locally may be broadly in decline, it is getting worse relative to the national rate. The local homicide rate was about 1.5 times the national rate in 1985; in 2017, it was about 3.7 times the national rate, and that trend line is heading up.
Professor Richard Rosenfeld, an expert in crime statistics at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, reviewed the students’ analysis comparing local and national numbers.
“The similarity in their trends suggests that the same factors are driving the national rates and local rates over time,” Rosenfeld wrote in an email. “Whatever those factors are, they are more pronounced in (Macon-Bibb County) than nationwide.”
While these data offer a good overall view of the trends, there are some methodological inconsistencies across the multiple sources used that likely result in minor distortions.
Students drew data on the national per capita homicide rate from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, and also obtained the 1985-2013 data on the numbers of homicides in the former Bibb County and city of Macon (prior to consolidation in 2014) from the FBI. Since more recent data was not available from the same source, they compiled numbers for the last five years from data provided by the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office in response to an open records request.
Those more recent local numbers, however, may appear slightly inflated compared to the older numbers, because the FBI uses a more restrictive definition of homicide in its own tabulations. For example, the FBI excludes justifiable homicides from its count, and the 2014-present dataset provided by the sheriff’s office includes a handful of incidents that prosecutors considered, or at some point in the future may consider, justifiable.
For calculating the national per capita rate of homicide, the FBI uses its own formula to estimate year-to-year changes in the overall U.S. population in-between the headcount performed by the Census Bureau every 10 years. Since students could not precisely replicate that formula, they instead calculated the per capita rates in Macon-Bibb using census data only. This discrepancy likely had negligible effect on the accuracy of the picture provided by the data, because Macon-Bibb’s total population has changed relatively little since 1980.
Young black men most at risk
Since 1985, 803 known homicides have occurred in Macon-Bibb. Homicides were at their modern-era peak in the early 1990s nationwide, and Macon also mirrored this trend.
It was in the ‘90s when Macon-Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones and his wife began sleeping in separate rooms because he was getting so many calls in the night to come to the scene of homicides; they still sleep separately for the same reason today, he said.
“Those were some dangerous times,” said Macon-Bibb County Sheriff David Davis, who first became a deputy in 1979. “But if you notice, you had that spike and then it sort of went back down into more normal ranges after that.”
Davis added, “We’re hoping that 2019 will be a down year, because 2018 has been pretty high.”
Students performed demographic analyses of the local homicide data for the past five years, and found the overwhelming majority of victims were African-American males under 40 years old. Every year from 2014-2018, more than 80 percent of murder victims were black. In 2014, every homicide victim was black. In comparison, African Americans make up 54 percent of the overall Macon-Bibb population, according to the most recent Census Bureau estimates.
Those demographic traits are generally mirrored in the people accused of committing homicide. Authorities have named suspects in 94 percent of homicide cases from 2014. That has steadily decreased to 70 percent in 2018, however authorities have had less time to investigate those more recent cases and may yet make arrests.
“Homicides are some of the hardest crimes to prevent, yet, on the flip side, they’re some of the easiest to solve,” Davis said.
Students also compared the ages of victims with the ages of the suspected perpetrators, and found that victims and the people accused of killing them tend to be similar in age. (For the purposes of this analysis, students considered the ages of all suspects named by authorities, even those who were not, or have yet to be, found guilty in court.) However, since 2015, the average age of suspects has been a little younger than the age of victims.
Sheriff Davis said he’s worried about the the number of younger people becoming involved in homicide cases — eight victims in 2018 were teenagers.
“We’ve had a number of those same cases where the suspects were under 20 years old also,” he said. “That seems to be a troubling trend that we are going to watch, and get the community involved in some of our efforts of trying to get to the heart of what causes some of those issues.”
Where homicides happen
Students plotted on a map all homicides that occurred from 2014-2018.
The points indicating individual incidents and the years in which they occurred are overlaid on a map showing the median household annual incomes of people living in Macon-Bibb census tracts; the lighter the color, the poorer the area, according to the most recent Census Bureau data.
Within the cluster of homicides concentrated in central Macon, most were committed in tracts with very low household incomes. Since Jan. 1, 2014, 129 homicides have occurred in Macon-Bibb, and of those, only nine occurred in regions where the median income was above $61,188.
What motivates homicide
“You look at some of the underlying issues like blight, and economics issues, educational issues that outline some underlying causations in some of these homicides,” Davis said, “a lot of it boils down to some sort of personal conflict.”
Davis shared the details of a recent case in which the victim was homeless. Deputies arrested two suspects for that case on Dec 6.
“They knew each other,” Davis said. “And that’s another thing about homicides — the vast majority of them … the suspect and victim are known to each other. So there is some sort of personal relationship breakdown … They don’t have the coping skills to deal with this conflict and they resort straight to violence.”
Jones attributed the local homicide rate to a similar problem: “Nobody wants to back down,” he said.
“I’ve seen over 10,000 dead bodies. That’s not an estimate, ma’am, that’s the exact number. God, I keep count of it,” Jones said, referring to his years as an EMT combined with his time in the Coroner’s Office. “Out of 10,000 dead bodies, I have seen over 3,000 homicides. It just don’t make sense.”
This is article was reported by students in a class taught by Martin Zhao of Mercer University’s Computer Science Department and Adam Ragusea of Mercer’s Center for Collaborative Journalism. In addition to the authors, contributions were made by Thais Ackerman, Matthew Causey, Jiali Chen, Zaiyid Cooper, Alexander Crotty, Grant Goupil, Emily Harvey, Kenneth Lemoine, Marion Meadows, Devyn Mode, Charles Pridgen, Terese Romeo, Jaylen Stowe, Mary Catherine Townsend, Shaila Warren and Ryan Weaver. Assistance with the map was provided by Wil Cowart, geographic information systems analyst at the Middle Georgia Regional Commission.