A better discussion about crime in Edmonton

Today I launched a website at www.everybodyinthiscityisarmed.com that highlights the sensational media coverage we’ve seen lately about homicides in Edmonton in the hopes that we can change the discussion for the better. At 34 and counting, there’s no question that we’re in a bad situation and that if we don’t take action (we already have) we could be on track for a record number of murders this year. I don’t think that is going to happen however, and I wrote about why back in early July. I see the new website as a continuation of that effort. Hopefully it’s a call to action for local media, to go from simply recording what has happened and lamenting the growing number to digging into why it has happened and what we can do about it. I hope it’s also a call to action for Edmontonians, to demand more meaningful coverage of crime in our city.

Over the weekend I saw people like Andy tweeting a link to this Canoe.ca article. The discussion seemed to pick up again yesterday, with Jeff’s discussion in the headlines and more tweeting from people like Adam. Lots of people were mentioning Bill Pitt, a criminologist at Grant MacEwan University. I started copying down some of his quotes and made notes beside them, based on research I had already done. One thing led to another, and after a few hours I had registered the domain and put up the web page. I asked Jeff, Sally, and Adam for their thoughts and ideas, and via email they helped me improve it. Sally did the logo and header, while Jeff and Adam helped me tweak the content and layout.

The page started out very focused on Bill Pitt, for a few reasons. He has said some absolutely outlandish things, perhaps most of all the statement “everybody in this city is armed.” I thought that phrase captured the sensationalism very well, so that’s why I went with it for the domain. I also focused on Pitt because I realized that all of the quotes I had copied down were easily refuted. Over the course of the evening however, the page became a little less focused on Pitt specifically and more on local media coverage in general. As I said in an interview with iNews880’s Brittney LeBlanc today, “it’s not really about Bill Pitt, it’s about going beyond the quote, and the easy number, and the easy stat, and getting into a little more about why.”

I think there are so many questions we could be discussing to get a better understanding of the situation in which we find ourselves. I have included some of them on the website. Why has Montreal’s homicide rate declined so steadily since 1981 and what we can learn from that? How is 2011 similar to 2005/2006, the last time we had a spike in homicides? Why did our homicide rate drop so significantly after 1992? These are questions that take work to start to answer. It takes research, digging into the archives, talking to the right people. I started with the numbers, and I’ll do what I can to go beyond. I hope others will join me in that quest.

It will be obvious to longtime readers, but it’s worth mentioning that I rarely write about crime. I don’t mention it in my weekly notes, nor do I link to crime-related stories on Edmonton Etcetera. Crime is always on the front page of the newspaper and in the first few minutes of the newscast. It doesn’t need any more coverage. So why have I decided to get involved? Because I care about Edmonton. I think the sensational reporting has gotten out of hand, and I think the media’s thoughtfulness about the issue has simply not grown along with the body count.

Even if this outrageous spike – 33 homicides in the first 30 weeks of 2011 compared to 27 at year’s end in both 2009 and 2010 – hasn’t created a climate of fear on Edmonton’s streets, it is establishing an unseemly image of our city that is being broadcast and published the world over and will not be easily shed.

That’s what the Edmonton Journal published today, and they’re absolutely right. I’m not denying the numbers, but I am saying there’s a lot more to crime in Edmonton than 34 homicides in 2011.

I don’t really have any plans for the website, so I’d love to hear your suggestions. Karen asked about comments today, so I added Disqus to the page. How do you think it should evolve? Does it have life beyond today, or is it a single-serving website?

More importantly, what would make the discussion better for you? What’s missing from recent coverage about homicides in Edmonton? And what do you know that others need to know? Let’s have a better discussion about crime in our city.

Edmonton’s Homicide Rate: How much has changed in 30 years?

Reading that we’ve had 28 murders so far this year in Edmonton is disheartening, as others have noted. And without a doubt something needs to be done to understand why this happening and what we can do to stop it. But has the picture really changed all that much from previous years?

Our homicide rate (the number of homicides per 100,000 people) currently sits at roughly 2.41. That compares to Winnipeg’s 2.08 (they have had 16 murders so far this year). If we extrapolate for the rest of the year, we’d finish with a homicide rate of roughly 4.82. That would indeed be our highest ever. However, a rate that high has only been experienced in large cities twice in the last 30 years:

Given that history, I would be shocked if we finished 2011 with a homicide rate above 4.8 (which would equate to 56 murders).

Here’s the average homicide rate for each of those cities:

And here’s what the rate looks like from year to year (it appears Montréal has experienced the most steady decline – we should find out what they did):

As for the title of Murder Capital of Canada – that distinction clearly goes to Winnipeg. It has led large cities in murders more in the last 30 years than any other:

In recent years, it has generally been Winnipeg #1 and Edmonton #2, or vice versa.

It sounds bad: “we’ve had more murders in the first six months of 2011 than we did all of last year”. That’s the kind of statement that will spur us into action. But I don’t think the situation is really all that different from previous years.

The other negative side effect of all of this is the knock on Edmonton’s image throughout Canada and around the world. Countless stories have been written about our homicide rate. I was interviewed by CTV about this today. I said that the words ‘homicide’ and ‘murder’ have been mentioned by Edmontonians on Twitter about 1200 times in the last month or so. What I didn’t get to do in the interview was compare that to previous years:

The absolute number of mentions is higher this year than it was in the last two years, but so is the total number of tweets overall. So I normalized the data. If the same number of tweets had been posted in June 2009 as were posted in June 2011, the words ‘homicide’ and ‘murder’ would have been mentioned more two years ago than today. All this to say: Edmontonians are talking about this topic, but perhaps not more than they have in the past. I would guess that other Canadians are talking about our homicide rate more than is normal, however.

UPDATE (8/5/2011): I updated the second paragraph to better reflect the way Statistics Canada calculates homicide rates, so that the numbers better align with the rest of the post. I had originally stated that extrapolating for the rest of 2011 would result in a homicide rate above 5.0, when it should have been 4.8. My argument remains the same – statistically speaking, that is very unlikely.