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Homicides reach a historic low in Sacramento

Sacramento saw a historic drop in homicides in 2014, the likes of which had not been seen in 41 years, according to the Sacramento Police Department.
Sacramento saw a historic drop in homicides in 2014, the likes of which had not been seen in 41 years, according to the Sacramento Police Department. Sacramento Bee file

Richard Nixon was in the White House the last time Sacramento logged a body count as small as it did last year – a historic low lauded by police as the result of new methods of policing and a growing police force.

There were 29 people killed within the city limits in 2014, according to data released Thursday by the Sacramento Police Department. That’s one more than in 1973, when the city housed less than half the roughly 480,000 people it does today.

The numbers – which also show a near 15 percent drop in serious crimes like murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assaults, burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft – continue a decadelong downward trend that mirrors a national slide in crime rates, most notably in big cities with big crime like New York, Chicago and Detroit. The numbers released Thursday were a part of national crime reporting collected by the FBI.

Criminologists have said the drop can be attributed to many factors, including policing tactics and community involvement, as well as inexplicable factors that are out of anyone’s control.

Crime rates dip and spike in cycles, Berkeley law professor and criminologist Franklin Zimring said. What matters more than the historic highs and lows are the trends over time and where on that spectrum a city seems to be holding steady, he said.

The historic low seen in 2014 may be a fluke, but since 2008, the number of murders in Sacramento hasn’t broken out of the 30s. Since last year, 3,101 fewer people fell victim to crime citywide, with five fewer homicides.

Sacramento’s overall crime drop of nearly 15 percent was preceded by a drop in 2013 of 10 percent in the same categories from the year before.

“This is a wonderful period, and those are wonderful trends to be cautious about,” Zimring said. “A drop of five killings in one year is just a happy event. Those five killings are real, and they matter, but it isn’t the kind of statistical trend that easily attaches to specific policy innovations.”

Nowhere has the reduction in violent crime been more evident than on Mack Road, a commercial corridor in south Sacramento.

The street normally is the scene of several homicides each year, particularly during the summer, when kids are out of school. But last summer, there wasn’t a single homicide on the street, a first for the area in 15 years. What’s more, Mack Road hasn’t seen a homicide since last March, neighborhood organizers said.

Many in the area attribute the reduction in violent crime to a program called Summer Night Lights, a community gathering held on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights between May and September. More than 10,000 people attended the events last summer, sitting with their neighbors at large tables as they ate fresh dinners and listened to DJs play music.

“We wanted to build a community, which was something that Mack Road had not typically had,” said Jenna Abbott, the executive director of the Mack Road Partnership.

Police say Mack Road, and historically high-crime areas like it, have been the targets of geographical policing efforts that use crime data to determine which areas of the city are most vulnerable to certain kinds of crime.

“Downtown is policed differently than south Sacramento, which is policed differently than Natomas, which is policed differently than midtown,” Sacramento police spokesman Officer Doug Morse said. “We’ve been making officers aware of what crimes to best look out for in certain places so we can do more to prevent those crimes from happening in the first place.”

This kind of policing has been proved to reduce homicides and other “public” crimes by meeting them where they happen – on the streets, Zimring said.

It’s called hot-spot policing.

In cities like New York, that has meant eliminating outdoor drug markets, which cut the city’s homicides by nearly 85 percent: At the height of a decadelong crime wave in New York, 2,245 people were killed in 1990. Last year, there were 328 homicides investigated in all five boroughs.

“When you send your police sources to places where violent crime keeps happening, you increase public intervention, which tends to drive crime down,” Zimring said, adding that another way to control for homicides is to increase aggressive policing of domestic violence.

“There are cases where police know which people, who are at high risk for homicides,” he said. “Those are very intimate cases, because, often, by the time the police get there and find a body, it’s the seventh time they’ve been called.”

Sacramento police said they’re engaging these practices and more. Other programs that integrate technology, such as the social media site Nextdoor.com, which allows residents to engage with police about local safety concerns, have also played a role in keeping crime rates down, Sacramento police said. Morse pointed to a renewed effort to encourage and support neighborhood watch programs, of which there were 338 in Sacramento by the end of last year, nearly double the number from 2013.

Mayor Kevin Johnson applauded the numbers and police efforts to engage the community.

“The latest statistics show that we are making real progress in creating a safer Sacramento, including the eye-popping reduction in homicides,” the mayor said in a written statement emailed to The Sacramento Bee by his spokesman. “These types of results wouldn’t be possible without the city, the chief (of police), the peace officers and the community working together.”

Johnson has linked declining crime with his ongoing advocacy to diversify the Police Department and to create trust between the department and neighborhoods where tension often exists between officers and residents. This week, the mayor traveled to Washington, D.C., where he briefed a presidential task force on his efforts.

A significant share of the Police Department’s staffing increase has been a result of Measure U, a ballot measure passed by voters in 2012 that raised the sales tax in the city. Revenue from the tax increase has funded more than 50 new cops in just over a year.

These new police officers have bolstered the department’s patrol efforts, Morse said, with more incoming officers expected to extend police reach in 2015.

“It’s a definite step in the right direction,” Morse said.

Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang at (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter @Marissa_Jae.

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