Violent crime in Detroit shadows the landscape like its rows of abandoned buildings, but now the city faces a new precedent, even as gun-related killings decline nationwide: More people were killed here last year than at any time in the past 20 years.
"America has a problem with guns, but the epicenter seems to be here in Detroit," Interim Detroit Police Chief Chester Logan said at a news conference Thursday, as city officials reported 386 criminal homicides in 2012, the highest since 1992.
"As the chief of police in the city of Detroit, I take a certain amount of blame for the spiraling gunplay in the city," he said, "but one of the things you should realize, and everybody here in this room should realize, is that gunplay is a national problem.”
Logan is correct: The United States is in the throes of another cultural self-examination about guns after the horrific deaths of 20 children and six adults at the hands of a 20-year-old gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Other city officials and urban crime experts say the problem is not just guns.
"At least two-thirds of the homicides in Detroit are related to drug sales, disputes between people selling drugs or disputes between people owing people money about drugs," said David Martin, director of the Urban Safety Program at Wayne State University in Detroit.
Martin has researched police reports in all parts of the city to examine crime patterns. He says Detroit's police have to develop more effective methods of dealing with the city's drug economy and its consequences. "And that's very difficult," Martin told Yahoo News.
Detroit reported 411 homicides in 2012, 25 of them deemed "justifiable" by FBI crime reporting standards. Still, the remaining 386 represent 54.6 homicides per 100,000 residents, according to the Detroit Free Press. In 1993 the rate was 57.6 homicides per 100,000 residents.
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing also pointed toward community-based causes and, potentially, solutions, but he stopped short of singling out drugs or guns. "The release of annual crime statistics reminds us of the senselessness of crime and violence in our community; the challenges facing our police force; and the need to improve conflict resolution and other anti-crime initiatives," he said in a statement.
Statistically, said Martin, Detroit harbors a range of factors that would contribute to a high homicide rate. The city has a high proportion of young men aged 20-29, he said. That age group accounted for 131 homicide victims and has demographic connections to the drug trade. The number of young men in the city who struggle with dysfunctional families and the high number of vacant homes in Detroit make matters worse.
"Groups of thugs have taken over the neighborhoods, and they can do what they please," Martin said. "It's like the Wild West out there."
Possible solutions addressing the homicide problem could be found in working with that age group, Bing said. "We've got to wrap our arms as best we can around these young folks and let them know that when they get into these kinds of situation it doesn't necessitate a gun; it doesn't have to necessitate a fight."The mayor said he would meet with Detroit public school officials to try to engage young people in the city. He also promised more communication with local media in 2013 to address the problem.
Martin said the dramatic increase appears to have motivated city, county, state and federal officials to address Detroit's violent crime problem.
"There is a full-court press going on," he said. "There's probably going to be a revamping of each of their crime-fighting strategies. The magical number of 400 homicides seems to spur action."
The city reported a 2.6 percent overall decrease in major crimes such as aggravated assault, burglary and rape, officials said. But it also experienced year-over-year increases in car thefts and robberies.
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