STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Many Michigan cities are reporting a drop in homicides so far this year. Can the trend last?


The numbers are down 30% in Flint.

They were down 70% in Saginaw through July. Down 66% in Grand Rapids through June. Down 14% in Detroit, and on pace for the lowest annual total in decades.

The reports are preliminary, but homicides in many of Michigan’s cities are way down compared to last year.

First, a word of caution.

"We have to be careful about getting excited before we can see if it’s a one-year blip," says Wendy Regoeczi, director of the Criminology Research Center at Cleveland State University. Regoeczi also serves as editor of Homicide Studies, an academic journal that publishes national and international research on homicides.

She says it is difficult to say much about homicide trends as they’re happening. Nationally, the data on homicides is generally reported the year after those homicides occur. Locally, things change quickly.

"The homicide rates across cities and areas within the U.S. are often subject to short-term fluctuations because they’re such a rare form of crime," Regoeczi says. "And so they can go up and down from year to year quite considerably without really being indicative of a longer-term change in the trend."

The up and down swings are more dramatic in smaller cities. For example, in Saginaw, the FBI reports homicides jumped from a total of fourfour in 2010 to 27 in 2012. This year, the numbers are on pace to be closer to where they were in 2011.

In Michigan’s largest city, the number of homicides has fluctuated as well. But Detroit Police Chief James Craig says the city is on pace to end the year with fewer than 300 murders. That would be the lowest total for Detroit since the 1960s. The numbers on other types of violent crimes in Detroit are also down this year.

"I haven’t been surprised. I’m gratified they’re moving in the right direction," says Saul Green, who chairs the Detroit Youth Violence Prevention Initiative. "But based on where we are coming from, we have a long way to go."

Homicide is the third leading cause of death for people age 15-24 in the United States. It’s the No. 1 cause of death for African Americans in that age group. More than half of the deaths for black males age 15-19 are homicides. Green says that has to change.

In urban communities, too many young people are dying from this.

And that’s what the Detroit Youth Violence Prevention Initiative is trying to stop. The organization has support from the federal government. It involves a number of agencies and organizations, police officers, community leaders, prosecutors and doctors all with the same goal.

"They're coming across state lines, they're coming across city lines, it almost feels like it's raining guns out here," says Saul Green, chair of the Detroit Youth Violence Prevention Initiative.

Green says there isn’t any one factor that will create sustained change when it comes to violence in Detroit. It’s a lot of things. 

But there’s one problem that’s not getting fixed according to Green, who is a former U.S. prosecutor. He says guns continue to flow into the city. 

"They’re coming across state lines, they’re coming across city lines, it almost feels like it’s raining guns out here," he says. 

Guns are behind most homicides in Detroit and in the United States. Finding a way to stop the flow of guns to young people in cities is a major focus in preventing violent crime. But Green says he doesn’t see a solution to that problem yet.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.