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Increased Homicides

The Modesto Bee published this article in January:

It's a good, thorough article. The county has had too many homicides.

"Homicides," as listed, do not include most vehicular homicides, but otherwise - correctly - list killings by one person of another. Some of those are not murders. Some of them are justified. And a single year of homicide data is noisy.

I'm hopeful that those that read the article saw the same shocking comment I did.  If this is going to be too long for you, the short version is: Homicides are up in the county, we should work to fix that, and it is fixable.

OK, so here's the story’s lede (to use a news term): There were 49 homicides in the county last year, an uptick from prior years. Is that a lot?

Let's take a look at some other numbers:

Stanislaus County:
Population: 538,000. Homicides: 49. Rate: 1 per 10,739.

San Joaquin County: 
Population: 726,000. Homicides: 55. Rate: 1 per 13,200

Merced County:
Population: 268,455. Homicides: 20. Rate: 1 per 13,422

Nationally, the homicide rate is about half that of Stanislaus County’s. What does this mean?
If Stanislaus County’s homicide rate were the same as San Joaquin’s or Merced’s, nine local people wouldn’t be dead.

Preventing homicides is a key goal of any sensible law enforcement plan. How do we do that?
First, as the article correctly notes, gangs and domestic violence are huge drivers of the homicide rate. Having dedicated, experienced teams of law enforcement and prosecutors is critical to success. Our office has attorneys who have been here for 15 months or less in many units, including gangs, domestic violence, and sex crimes. The newer attorneys are largely excellent, but even so this is a hard job and an excellent attorney with six years’ experience is better than one with 15 months’ experience. But this is really the only option left due to the extreme turnover in the office.

Second, get violent criminals off the street. This includes doing it on the front side – catching the bad guys and putting them away. This means good policework on the street, and good detective work – all of this requires keeping experienced cops, and making the detective position a sought-after one. It also includes proper sentencing to the extent possible with the new low-incarceration rules. Drug treatment may be appropriate for a petty thief, but it isn’t for serious offenses. If I am elected, I intend to have a Major Crimes Unit to focus on violent offenders.

Keeping the high-risk defendants in custody also includes sending prison-eligible probation violators to prison when probation’s not working. This is an issue because the state sends money to counties which is partially based on the number of probationers who go to prison – send someone to prison, get less money. But public safety must be paramount in this consideration. If we have a little less money and a recidivist domestic violence menace is in prison, I’d like to make that tradeoff.

Third, we have to agree that law enforcement and prosecutors affect crime rates, including homicide rates. You thought we all agreed on that? Think again: “Unfortunately, homicides are neither predictable nor preventable,” is a quote from the story from Sheriff Christianson. The sheriff is mistaken, and it’s a dangerous mistake - this is saying that law enforcement can't do anything to keep people from being murdered. I am hopeful that Juan Alanis and Jeff Dirkse feel differently.

New York City once had a homicide rate that was much higher than our county’s. They lowered it to 1/6 its former rate, and now New York City has a homicide rate of about half of Stanislaus’. They didn’t give up on it.

Chicago, meanwhile, reduced its detective force and has had a spike in homicides.

Law enforcement officials point out the difficulty in solving crimes in rural areas - and that's a real issue - but during that 2009-2016 timeframe, the Oakdale Police Department cleared at least 50% of the violent crimes in seven of those eight years, and at least 60% in four of those eight, which was a very good rate compared to some other county agencies. Oakdale’s murder rate during that period was less than one-sixth of the rest of the county’s. There are always complicating factors – some places are safer than others regardless of law enforcement efforts – but declaring the problem impossible to solve is misguided and unhelpful.

The homicide rate in this county needs to get lowered. The first step is to know we can do something about it. When I gave trainings to new attorneys (which I did from 2003 to 2016), I told them that we don’t know whose life we save with good work, but this work saves lives. When the Turlock Police Department caught the Valley First Credit Union robbers some years ago, they might have saved a life. When the Modesto Police Department caught serial robber Ed Mitchell, they probably saved a life of a potential future victim.

We can make it better.

Caveats and notes:

1. Year-to-year homicide rates are not dispositive of crime trends or even homicide trends - sometimes outlier numbers come back on their own. But they are meaningful – sometimes a rise is permanent - or, worse, it leads to a trend.

2. Reporting of crime statistics has issues generally - people sometimes try to mess with the reporting data. Homicide data is pretty robust, though, because it's hard (but not impossible) to game the data.

3. I got the population data from Wikipedia. I got the 2017 murder data from each jurisdiction's newspaper of record, which got the data from law enforcement. Other data, I got from government websites (both the feds and the state provide a lot of helpful data.) To the extent that the data I have is wrong or is calculated incorrectly, the conclusions I draw may be incorrect. Please let me know if you think that happened.

Mayne for District Attorney 2018
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