Monday, 14 June 2010

The experts can't explain a decline in the murder rate

The Director of the Bureau of Crime Research and Stuff was in the paper again this week pointing out that the murder rate has been dropping - and no one can explain why.

The big puzzle in NSW is the murder rate. It has almost halved since 1990 and no one knows why. The trend started well before the introduction of tougher gun laws, so that isn't the cause. Is it a case of the same number of people being attacked but fewer of them dying of their wounds, or are NSW citizens simply less likely these days to go out and kill one another? If so, why?
The answer may lie in two papers that his own agency has published over the last 20 years - one in 1994 on trends in homicide between 1968 and 1992, and a second crime brief covering 2003 to 2008. They're only 8 pages each, so they're an easy read. Some of it is obvious, but it needs stating:

men are often killed as a result of confrontational violence. This mainly involves men who are highly marginal in an economic and social sense. They display high risk-taking behaviour regarding their own, and others lives during disputes. Often conflict, or saving face, escalates to physical violence, and sometimes this results in a fatality. They may also murder in the course of committing another crime.
I think there is one thing worth looking into, and that is the age of murderers:

Suspects in our sample were disproportionately young, over half (67.1%) being aged between 15 and 34 years.
The reason I think we should consider age as a factor is that relationships are a big factor:

In most cases of homicide (40.6%), the suspect and victim were members of the same family. In 38.3 per cent of homicides, the suspect was a friend or acquaintance of the victim. Only 16.6 per cent of homicides involved a suspect who was a stranger.
The studies have both said that firearms are not really a factor - people generally like stabbing or bludgeoning each other to death:

(47.4%) were mainly due to bashing, strangling and other less common methods, such as smothering or drowning, and 23% due to stabbing.
And the use of knives is increasing:

It seems more likely that offenders are increasingly using knives, where before they may have used their fists and feet to bash the victim. This latter method decreased significantly over the period, and accounts for a large proportion of incidents not involving shooting or stabbing.
Here is the age factor again:

There has been a significant reduction in the rate of suspects aged 30-44 years.
Let's have a look at the second report, covering 2003 to 2008 - however, it only covers domestic homicides, not the whole range:

Stabbing was the most common act causing death, with knives used in over one-third of domestic homicides. The use of knives increased over the period, while the use of firearms decreased. Over three-quarters of offenders were male, and one-third of offenders may have had a history of mental illness and/or been suffering from mental illness at the time of the homicide. Twenty-six per cent of offenders were persons of interest in a violence-related incident in the 12 months prior to the homicide, and 52 per cent in the five years prior.
How is domestic violence a factor?

Each year since 1998, there have been between 17,800 and 27,500 incidents of domestic violence-related assault recorded by the NSW Police Force. Each year, for every victim of domestic homicide, there are more than 620 recorded incidents of domestic violencerelated assault.
I thought I'd toss this in - just in case Karl Mayerhofer comes back:

Approximately 13 per cent of offenders were recorded as being Aboriginal (26 of 207). As with the number of domestic homicide victims who were Aboriginal, this is disproportionate to the population of Aboriginal people in NSW (approximately 2%). At the national level in 2006/07, in relation to homicide more broadly, Indigenous males were found to be seven times as likely to be offenders as were non-Indigenous males, while Indigenous females offended at nearly 14 times the rate of non-Indigenous females (Dearden & Jones 2008).
How about mental health?

approximately 35% may have had a history of mental illness and/or been suffering from mental illness at the time of the homicide. The most common reference was to schizophrenia, followed by depression.
So what does all this tell us, and what can we conclude from it?

People are murdered because angry young people, who are possibly drunk, stab or bash their partner to death. However, fewer people are being murdered each year, so what is driving that?

You may notice that I have quite a few overseas police and ambo blogs on my sidebar. There have been a few instances where blogging coppers and ambos have opined that we have a lower murder rate due to better medical care. If you were sliced open 30 years ago, you probably would have died. Now, you walk out of hospital a week later with 60 stitches in you. Same with gunshot wounds. Some have even conjectured that our societies are more violent than ever, but the consequences are mitigated by ever improving emergency medical care.

That could be the case.

But there are a few other factors to consider.

I mentioned age at the start because the older you get, the less likely you are to kill someone. You mellow with age.

We also know that many homicides are domestics - husbands killing their wives. My suspicion is that because of relaxed sexual mores, people are less likely to go postal when their partner has an affair, and kill them. They just get divorced. People don't get as outraged anymore when they are cuckolded.

The second is that people are shacking up at a later age - an age when they are more mellow. If we consider that a certain amount of homicide must be driven by some sort of sexual anger - males feeling that they have been dishonoured etc - then anything that reduces the "sexual temperature" will reduce the rage that leads to murder.

I also think that the use of knives must be a factor. Stabbing someone is a bloody, messy business - much messier than beating them to death. I am going out on a long bough here, but I reckon that a lot of stabbings end up short of murder because the stabber chickens out after sticking the blade in once. It takes a special type of person to go on stabbing after they feel the knife go in the first time, and the blood come out. We did a bit of bayonet training when I was a chocko, and we had to be desensitized to sticking a bayonet into the guts of another person. It actually takes quite a bit of training to get a normal human being used to the idea of sticking another human. I have enough trouble slitting the throats of sheep - a person would be another ball game entirely.

A firearm on the other hand can be pretty terminal quite quickly - one blast from a shotgun, and it is all over. However, with a knife, unless you are a good stabber, it's likely you'll need to poke more than one hole in your victim before they keel over - and I reckon a lot of people would give up at one, leaving a wound that can be sewn up in emergency. It would be worth looking at the number of women being locked up for GBH with a knife - a lot might have intended to kill their hubby, but couldn't go through with it after that first stab.

Same goes for beating someone. With a gun, it's pretty easy to tell when someone is dead - or to make them dead. With a beating, it's hard to draw a line between "thumping a lesson into the woman" and "oh dear, that was one blow too many". A man in a drunken rage can cross that line and beat a woman to death because it's nasty, but not bloody like a knife attack. Sticking a knife in can result in instant remorse; whereas a punch to the head does not have the same impact.

The final factor must have something to do with the greater emphasis on dealing with domestic violence. The easiest way to stop a mad husband from beating his wife to death is to remove the wife (or husband) from the home. The skyrocketing rate of divorce over the last 30 years might have helped reduce domestic homicide - women just don't hang around to get beaten up. The fact that the Family Court also financially rapes men in order to set ex-wives up with a semblance of financial security allows wives to leave without fear of living on the breadline.

I'll be interested to see where the Law of Unintended Consequences takes us with this. There has been a lot of emphasis on reducing knife crime and carrying of knives of late - I wonder if the result will be fewer non-fatal stabbings but more fatal bashings?

Stay tuned........

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