National Post

Monday, September 23, 2002

Drop in murder rate called an illusion

Advanced medicine renders statistic obsolete: research

Adrian Humphreys
National Post

Murder rates would be five times higher if it were not for recent medical advances, say researchers who claim national homicide statistics hide how violent society really is.

Advances in medical technology and expanded emergency services -- from 911 phone lines to training for paramedics -- are saving so many victims of assault who previously would have died that the way we measure violence is becoming obsolete, says a research team from the University of Massachusetts and Harvard Medical School.

"Complacency or smugness about the drop in the homicide rate is absolutely misguided," said Anthony R. Harris, director of the criminal justice program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and lead author of a study comparing homicide rates, violent attacks and medical care.

"The lethality of criminal assaults is decreasing dramatically. Progressions in medical care is suppressing our homicide rate so the level of violence in society is increasingly difficult to measure," he said. "Lives are ruined not only by death but also by injury, paralysis and disfigurement."

Compared with 1960, the researchers estimate without medical advances there would have been between 45,000 and 70,000 homicides annually the past five years in the United States instead of an actual 15,000 to 20,000.

Criminologists, politicians and policy analysts tend to use the homicide rate as the gold standard of violence measurements.

Much has been made about the declining rates, using it as a so-called reality check against the view that society is becoming more violent. Pundits have even suggested we are witnessing a return to civility.

Statistics Canada reported last year the nation's homicide rate of 1.8 per 100,000 people is one of the lowest since the 1960s.

In the United States, the homicide rate in 1998 was 25% lower than it was in 1931, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Over the same period, however, the aggravated assault rate increased by 700%.

A detailed comparison of crime rates and medical data in the United States by Dr. Harris and his colleagues suggests Americans are shooting, stabbing and beating each other far more but victims who would have perished in decades past are saved on the operating table.

The data compares in minute detail crime statistics in individual counties to what medical services were available at different times in the 40 years studied.

"This [medical] success has ironically masked the perception that America continues to face extraordinarily high levels of criminal violence," says the study, published in the recent edition of Homicide Studies, an academic journal.

Although the data is for the United States, Dr. Harris believes the same will hold true for Canada.

"There is nothing to suggest that this is confined to America. There is reason to believe it could be magnified in America, because the choice of weaponry for firearms in this country is extraordinary, but the same basic patterns are there," he said.

"The drop in lethality can be seen historically across all of the industrial democracies from 1970 to the mid-1990s. The bad news is you are much more likely to get shot; the good news is you're probably going to live."

Doug Skoog, a criminologist at the University of Winnipeg, said he is not yet willing to dismiss the homicide rate as the distinctive measure of violence.

"Assaults are subject to so much filtering through social sieves. You have non-reporting issues of domestic assaults, you have zero tolerance policy in schools that increase reporting of assaults that would never have been reported in the past," he said.

"I trust homicide data as an overall measure of violence because, in Canada at least, you avoid reporting problems. We think that virtually every homicide in Canada eventually comes to the attention of police. There may be the odd homeless vagrant that gets whacked and they don't find the body but how often could that happen?"

Dr. Harris believes a breaking point will come when increases in firepower will exceed the pace of medical science.

"It is a cat and mouse game. The 'gangbangers' are searching for ever-more lethal weaponry. They are making these guns [for war] but they are selling them to testosterone-poisoned kids in the middle of inner cities.

"At some point, weaponry may yet trump medicine. We may have seen the limits of how far emergency medical care can go and it is a waiting game for the homicide rate to climb.

"There has got to be a limit to what the medical system can do," he said.

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