Murder in Pittsburgh

The biggest issue facing Pittsburgh in 2009 may not be its staggering public debt or its middling performance in the job creation sweepstakes. More important, the biggest issue may not be the Steelers' shot at the 2009 Super Bowl, the Pitt Panthers' No. 1 men's basketball ranking (above the fold on page 1 of this morning's Post-Gazette!), or the Penguins' impotent power play.

The biggest issue may be the sizeable and tragic jump in the city's homicide rate in 2008.

The Post-Gazette summarized the numbers the other day:
By Dec. 31, the Pittsburgh Police Bureau had investigated 79 homicides for
the year.

The number is unofficial and could fall to 73 when the bureau reclassifies
some deaths as accidental or justifiable, including three police-involved
shootings. But even the lower figure makes 2008 the city's bloodiest year since
1993, when there were 83 homicides. The number also represents a 28 percent
increase from 2007, when the city recorded 57 homicides.

This goes beyond mere crime statistics; even if you or your neighborhood wasn't touched directly by one of these events, your city feels the pain. My UC Berkeley colleague Jonathan Simon put the issue this way on a blog that's read mostly by fellow law professors:
Most of us are ready to leave Nixonland behind, and the current fiscal crisis of states like California may help provide the needed pressure to help walk politicians down from ever tougher criminal laws ... , but the road from fear to hope is shadowed by a ghost from the '60s that won't go away, the wave of violent crime in America's cities. Just as the dramatic decline in urban gun crime all over America during the 1990s helped produce a housing a boom in America's large cities (ok and some incautious lending as well), the recent uptick of homicides involving guns in some large cities
(including San Francisco and Oakland) is causing a growing panic among middle class families that have reinvested in cities. Since the 1960s this has been a race problem as well as a youth and violence problem. Half of all homicide victims in San Francisco last year were African American (mostly young men, as were their likely killers), while fewer then 10 percent of the city's current residents are. For forty years we have built white suburbs and predominantly black prisons and fear of gun homicide is, I would argue, an anchoring condition for both.

Read this feature in the San Francisco Chronicle to get a flavor of the despair that haunts these communities. I can't imagine that Pittburgh is much different. I suspect that conditions in Pittsburgh are worse.

In Pittsburgh, city/suburb conflict is a regular feature of debates about differential tax rates and city/county consolidation. Those debates often obscure a fundamental point about differential living and working conditions for all Pittsburghers, a point that the homicide rate highlights . If politicians and others really want to put the region on a sound financial footing, then they need to go beyond solving homicides, get into preventing them, and work to make all of Pittsburgh attractive and safe enough to all those who live in the City and those who would like to live there.


1 Response to "Murder in Pittsburgh"

Schultz said... 1/06/2009 10:33 PM

Excellent post. This is why we missed Pittsblog! This is also the kind of stuff that we need the mayor, chief executive, and other local officials to address. Unfortunately, they're too busy doing important things, like planning Steelers rallies.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at] Mike also blogs at, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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