Homicidal thoughts

Richard Garside
Thursday, 28 January 2010

Good news of sorts. Latest figures from the Home Office suggest that homicide is falling in England and Wales. In 2007/08 the police recorded 753 homicides, a figure that fell to 651 in 2008/09. The pointy heads at the Home Office have a theory for why homicides have fallen, according to The Guardian.

'Senior Home Office statisticians have speculated that advances in medical science, which have saved the lives of some murder victims, may lay behind the decline.'

Hmmm. I guess it’s reassuring to know that if I’m stabbed in the gut on my way home from work there’s a slightly better chance now that a nurse might save my life. But patching people up after an assault is not quite the same thing as lower levels of underlying violence and conflict.

There’s an interesting graph in the Home Office report (page 11 for those who are interested in that kind of thing). It looks like this:

The graph shows us two lines. The solid line is for incidents the police initially recorded as a homicide. When someone dies it is not always clear whether they have been killed, have killed themselves or have died accidentally or from some other condition. So the police sometimes record an incident as a homicide that later turns out not be one. This is what the dotted line shows: incidents currently recorded as homicide.

The two lines tell a similar story. The number of homicides rose consistently from the early 1960s until the early ‘noughties’ before declining. The decline from the early ‘noughties does look pretty dramatic, falling from 943 in 2002/03 to 651 last year. However, the 2002/03 figure included all 172 of Dr Harold Shipman’s victims. Strip those out and the decline is rather less marked.

Another way of looking at the figures is that last year we had a similar number of homicides as we had when Labour came into office. And when we bear in mind that the number of homicides used to be a lot lower, this latest ‘good news’ isn’t that good.

So what is behind the long-term rise in homicide rates, even if the recent trend has been slightly downward? The social geographer Danny Dorling looked at all homicides in Britain between 1979 and 1999. He wrote up his research in an essay in this publication.

He found that by the last 1990s there were about 200 more homicides a year than the late 1970s. However the risk of homicide victimisation was not evenly spread. Those living in the richest neighbourhoods saw their homicide risk fall. Those living in the poorest neighbourhoods saw their homicide risk rise sixfold. The rising levels of homicide in the 1980s and 1990s, concentrated among the poorest and most vulnerable in society, was ultimately the result of a series of political decisions made in Whitehall and Westminster. As Dorling puts it:

'Behind the man with the knife is the man who sold him the knife, the man who did not give him a job, the man who decided that his school did not need funding, the man who closed down the branch plant where he could have worked, the man who decided to reduce benefit levels so that a black economy grew, all the way back to the woman who only noticed ‘those inner cities’ some six years after the summer of 1981, and the people who voted to keep her in office. The harm done to one generation has repercussions long after that harm is first acted out. Those who perpetrated the social violence that was done to the lives of young men starting some 20 years ago are the prime suspects for most of the murders in Britain.'

Dorling also found a cohort effect in the data. Those who left school in the early 1980s, entering the jobs market just as the recession of that time was biting, carried an increased risk of homicide right through to the late 1990s. In the context of the current recession this is worth bearing in mind.