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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Discounting Lives

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Apparently, Milwaukee city officials want to assure the majority of citizens that they have little reason to worry about becoming victims of homicide. But by putting out biased or misleading statistics, they are callously suggesting to families who have lost loved ones that victims of homicide are somehow to blame for their own deaths.

That was the clear impression given by a report last week from the Milwaukee Homicide Review Commission about the circumstances surrounding 39 homicides committed in the first six months of 2009. At first glance, the report includes shocking numbers suggesting that homicide victims were just as violent and criminal as the killers who murdered them. A key finding was that 75% of homicide victims in the first six months of this year had prior arrests. In fact, victims had an average of 12.4 prior arrests, compared to 12.8 prior arrests for the suspects arrested in those killings.

“If you’re not involved in the drug trade and you don’t have a criminal record, the likelihood that you’re going to be involved in a homicide or shooting is very small,” said Mallory O’Brien, director of the commission.

So relax, everybody. Only bad people get murdered. The victims are just as bad as the perpetrators. No great loss.

Unless, of course, the murder victim happens to be your son or daughter or other beloved member of your family. Or unless these murders are taking place on the streets of your neighborhood and endangering the lives of you or your children.

Then, it’s not nearly so easy to shrug off homicides in your city as something that only happens to bad people who probably deserve it anyway.

Blaming the Victims

First of all, the suggestion that most homicides are connected to the drug trade is not really borne out by the numbers. Only nine of the first 39 homicides this year were identified as drug-related.

But it was the statistics related to prior arrests that were a dead giveaway that the commission’s report was intentionally biased to paint homicide victims in the worst possible light.

The first question everyone should ask is why statistics related to prior arrests were even used. We all know an arrest is not proof of anything. An arrest is an accusation. The district attorney’s office decides whether someone who is arrested is even charged with a crime. Then, of course, it’s up to a judge or a jury to deter mine guilt or innocence.

At the time of a murder, the outcome of most previous arrests would be known. Why wouldn’t the commission use the number of actual convictions? Then, at least, we would know whether victims were actually found guilty of the offenses for which they were arrested.

Clearly, the only reason to use arrests instead of convictions is that the number of arrests would be much higher. It was a way to make victims look worse.

The other equally important questions are: What were all those arrests, anyway? Were they for violent crimes or petty offenses? Were the crimes felonies or misdemeanors?

We all know it is very easy to get arrested in some areas of the city. There is a simple reason for that: That’s where the police are.

Police Chief Ed Flynn talks about data-driven policing. More police are assigned to high-crime areas. That’s as it should be. But there are social consequences as a result of that.

If you are a young black on the North Side or a young Latino on the South Side, there is a much higher likelihood you will be stopped by the police. If you live in a quieter, white neighborhood, you may never have to worry about being pulled over by the police.

That is regardless of whether you are engaging in illegal activities. We know statistically whites are just as likely to use illegal drugs as blacks. But in Wisconsin, blacks are 40 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for nonviolent drug use.

There is nothing wrong with city officials putting out statistics warning everyone that buying or selling drugs can be extremely dangerous. Naive, young drug users need to know the risks.

But don’t put out a homicide report suggesting people who buy marijuana are the criminal equivalent of murderers who rob and kill people who buy marijuana.

If you want to reduce the drug trade and its violence, provide drug treatment for poor addicts in the city just like wealthier drug addicts receive in the suburbs.

The violent murder of a loved one is one of the most traumatic events anyone in our community can experience. The Homicide Review Commission is correct that these tragedies affect citizens in some areas of the city far more than others. But by discounting the lives of victims and painting them as bad people, the commission is visiting even more trauma on these already grieving families.