Is there a violent crime wave in Adams Morgan?

Pardon me for being a skeptic, but when people complain of crime waves in their neighborhoods, I have to ask if this is something real, or just media-driven hysteria? Sure, sometimes increases in crime are due to real changes, and call for urgent responses. Some years ago, little bands of robbers from the Maryland suburbs were cruising our neighborhoods, looking for people to rob, and the surge in robberies was real. But other times, the usual ups and downs of crime are turned into local panics, and residents call urgently for increases in police on patrol, even though nothing really has changed.

robberies in Adams Morgan Lately some residents of Adams Morgan have been complaining of a wave of violent crime. Is this something real, or just a normal variation? Let's take a closer look. I plot here the number of robberies per month, since the formation of the current PSAs in May, 2004. (Robbery is by far the most common crime of violence. Adams Morgan averages 13 robberies a month, but only 4 assaults, while sexual assaults and homicides are, happily, very rare.)

Yes, the frequency of robberies in Adams Morgan increased in September to 21 in the month, well over the average of 12 or 13 in a month, and almost twice the 11 reported in August. Then, in October, the count dropped  to just 8. Was this due to effective police action, or was it just the usual variation in robberies, month to month? Dramatic ups and downs in the monthly robbery count are frequent. In July there were 19, almost as many as in this September "crime wave". Why the decrease from 19 to 11, July to August? Why the increase from 11 to 21, August to September? Was policing work so highly variable, month to month? Or are these sharp increases and decreases simply the intrinsic variability of the statistic?

Maybe one needs to know the robbers to understand why the count changes so much. But it's apparent that it does change, doubling sometimes, halving others, for no clear reason. Maybe it's weather. Maybe the guys who do this sort of thing work in bursts, then lie low for a while. If a robbery decrease is due to effective police activity, does an increase mean that the police aren't doing their job? I doubt it -- I think the police pretty steadily do their best, and they really have little control over the frequency of robberies in any neighborhood.

The popular "police presence" specifically is not effective at reducing robbery rates, not if those police are visible, in uniform, or in marked squad cars. Robbers aren't the smartest folks on earth, but they're smart enough to do their robberies when there are no cops in sight. It's possible that the Metropolitan Police (MPD) are doing the right thing, by fielding plain-clothes officers in likely robbery locations, hoping to catch a robber who thinks that that guy hanging on the corner is just hanging on the corner. The plainclothes officers I've seen are really good at looking like street thugs.

Adjacent PSAs

Columbia Heights robberies What of the neighboring PSAs during this same September-October period? If their robbery rates followed the same pattern as Adams Morgan, perhaps one could conclude that something was going on area-wide that was changing the frequency of robberies. If their robbery rates didn't track with Adams Morgan, one would have to conclude that something different was happening there, such as increased police effectiveness.

Well, there's no matching decrease in Columbia Heights, just to the northeast of Adams Morgan. That's the case also for PSAs 304, 305, and 306 (208). Only in Adams Morgan did the robbery count decrease markedly, September to October. So perhaps one has to conclude that, whatever was done in Adams Morgan to reduce the number of robberies, it worked.

Robbery rates

These charts show the number of robberies in each PSA. But what one really wants to know is, how many robberies are there per resident? Our PSAs differ greatly in population, so a larger number of robberies, such as is apparent in Dupont Circle, may correspond to a smaller number per capita. What Joe and Jane Resident want to know is, how great is the threat to them and their friends and family?

This chart shows the robbery rates, in robberies per month per 1000 residents, averaged over the three-month period of August through October, in order of decreasing robbery rate. What leaps out from this chart is that two Third District PSAs, namely 305 (U Street/Cardozo/Shaw) and 302 (North Columbia Heights) are suffering from the highest robbery rates in the district. Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan are pretty close to the 3D average, as is Logan Circle. The robbery rates in South Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant are below even the District-wide average for the period.

robbery rates, by PSA, August - October 2008 So, why is Adams Morgan getting all this attention, including evidently some focused police action that is significantly reducing the robbery rate? You would think that PSAs 302 and 305 would warrant the special attention, not 303.

If the police were left to their own devices, I'm certain that they would focus their resources on the areas where the crime rates are highest. But the MPD knows who pays the bills, and who calls the shots. So when residents in politically influential areas call for police resources, they get them. Residents of neighborhoods not complaining so loudly, or lacking in political influence, don't.

So apparently the police have succeeded in bringing the robbery rate down in Adams Morgan, and shortly all parties will declare victory and move on. Meanwhile, robberies in the not-so-influential neighborhoods will continue. And in due course, robberies in Adams Morgan will resume, too. As long as we're trying to solve the crime problem by arresting and incarcerating every criminal we can get our hands on, crime will continue. The police will be the first to agree that we cannot arrest our way out of this societal problem, which has its origins in poverty, poor educations, and poor youth guidance. But what people want is an immediate fix, ideally by capturing the guys doing the bad deeds and sending them away. Proposing long-range solutions, by means of better education, better job opportunities, better youth guidance, doesn't solve the immediate problem of safety right now for you and yours.

Comparing robbery rates in the Third District

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This page created November 18, 2008