With a new baby, I find that I’m in the kitchen by myself a little more than I have been before. While I’ve always helped with household chores, now I’m doing much more of this solo while my wife nurses the baby who has voracious appetite. Often I’m cooking, cleaning or putting away dishes in the kitchen. In that time I turn on the little TV/VCR combo I’ve had for over fifteen years while I do my assigned tasks.
At first I watched, if I could find it, informative news. Unfortunately, unless you hit the right time when all the day’s events are summarized, most news outlets seem to discuss ad nauseam one or two sensational stories with “experts” voicing their opinions. It gets monotonous in a hurry. I started watching baseball games or sports highlights next. Baseball has been good because the two broadcasts that we get, Dodgers and Angels, are teams that I don’t follow. That way I can casually watch while I work for a couple of innings and not get sucked into it. However, not long ago stumbled across a program that has sucked me in, Forensic Files on Headline News. Of course the Headline News Network has become a misnomer because they rarely carry headline news, just like MTV almost never plays videos anymore.
In tight 30-minute episodes (probably 24 minutes with commercials), a violent crime is committed, investigators follow clues, usually baffled at first, and then some breakthrough happens, often with forensic evidence used to support a conviction. Writing crime fiction, I find this fascinating. Less about the science involved that ultimately nails the perpetrator, but more about the motivations of the (most often) killer, the jagged path of the investigation and how the criminal reacted when caught. One trend that I notice on this program is that a disproportionate number of victims are female (and usually white on top of that). If you were to watch the program, it could lead one to believe that women are the most prevalent murder victims in America, stalked and hunted relentlessly. Yet, according to FBI statistics, 77.4% for murder victims in 2010 were male. https://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-u.s.-2010/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/expanded/expandhomicidemain
The Los Angeles Times has a fascinating (and sad and macabre) blog called The Homicide Report which details, as best as reporters can find, homicides that have happened within LA County going back to the year 2000. http://homicide.latimes.com It has detailed information with a map of the neighborhoods with demographic breakdowns by gender, race, weapons, ages, and other data. Of the 333 homicides this year, only 45 have been female. So 86.5% of murder victims have been male.
So why do the majority of the Forensic Files cases have female victims? From the producers’ standpoint, I can see how they would select true crime stories that have more sympathetic victims (like a single mother) so they can provoke a stronger feeling of outrage than one might have for a 20-year-old armed gangbanger who encroached on another gang’s territory. I feel that there are probably more female victims in procedural crime fiction on TV and in literature.
Sometimes in the show, perpetrators are known to the victim, but random acts of violence also seem to be a reoccurring theme. I think this helps in weaving mystery into the narrative, especially as family members and acquaintances are eliminated as suspects. In reality more murders (53% in 2010) were committed by “an acquaintance, neighbor, friend, boyfriend, etc” vs. unknown relationship (44% in 2010*). *I don’t know about the missing 3%, you need to ask the FBI.
One of the things that the random violence tends to do is make us not trust our fellow man. Local news stations and shows like Forensic Files often sensationalize the brutal acts. I have a co-worker who will often tell me about some horrible event in Los Angeles or in the US. When she finishes telling me about it, she often ends her summary with a line like “just goes to show we’re just not safe anywhere anymore.” If I have the energy, I try to rebuttal that we are incredibly safe. And I really believe that.
As I mentioned above, 333 people have been murdered in Los Angeles County this year. If you lived in a county with 2000 people, that would be a terrifyingly enormous figure and I would advise moving ASAP — don’t worry about packing. But Los Angeles County has 10+ million people living in it. Calculating the 333 murders that happened between January 1 and August 1, 2015, a citizen’s chance of being murdered on those dates is .0033% — a three thousandths of a percent or approximately 1 in 30,000. To put this in perspective you’re chance of getting struck by lightning in a lifetime is 1 in 3,000.
And there is another sad truth that is obvious in the LA Times homicide blog. A person’s zip code determines the amount of murder/violence they will encounter (remember male on male violence) as some places are high and others null. It’s mostly economics and the prevalence of gang violence mostly, along with some other factors.
It’s also worth noting that despite what all the crime shows, media reports and politicians are shouting, crime nationwide has been dropping for decades. Here is a graph from FBI with showing a 12.3% nationwide drop in violent crime between 2009 and 2013.
And this drop is happening with an almost 10 million increase in our population. (2009: 306.8M, 2013: 316.5M) So in 2013 1,163,146 violent acts were committed in the US with a population 316.5M, giving us a .367% chance of being a victim of a violent crime (about a 1/3 of 1%). The 2013 murder rate was 14,196 which put everybody’s risk at .004485%. Los Angeles had 620 murders in 2013 so it was at .0062%, a wee bit more dangerous than the US in total.
Nobody is certain of the exact reasons for the decrease, but many theories have been posited from mass incarceration to better community policing to legalized abortion to gentrification to the absence of lead in paint and gasoline. I imagine it is not one thing, but several combinations different things that have helped to lower the national crime rate.
Watching TV programs and reading headlines, we might never know things have been improving. That’s not to say we should leave our doors unlocked and toss all precautions into the wind. Predators live among us, and like animals in the wild, they look for opportunities to strike when they perceive their prey is vulnerable. Yet, we shouldn’t live in constant fear. When watching the news or the Forensic Files or even reading, it’s good to keep in mind that for the most part, many of those stories are isolated events and statistically it should not happen to most of us.
Is there anything you’ve seen, heard or read something that evoked a reaction only to research it later and find out that certain things were overstated, false or misleading?
Travis Richardson has been a finalist for the Macavity short story award in 2014 and 2015 as well as the Anthony short story award in 2014. His novella LOST IN CLOVER was listed in Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Crime Fiction of 2012. He has published stories in crime fiction publications such as Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, and All Due Respect. He edits the Sisters-In-Crime Los Angeles newsletter Ransom Notes, reviews Anton Chekhov short stories at http://www.chekhovshorts.com, and sometimes shoots a short movie. His latest novella, KEEPING THE RECORD, concerns a disgraced baseball player who will do anything to keep his tainted home run record. www.tsrichardson.com