Dead Wrong

If you turned on the boob tube the night of June 17 and switched to WTVJ-TV (Channel 6), you might have heard this while rooting around in the fridge for a cold one:

"Now to Miami, Florida: It's become world-famous for its beautiful people and carefree lifestyle, but it's also become infamous for its murder rate -- skyrocketing 200 percent last year!"

The owner of the tabloid contralto was Diane Diamond, an anchor for the nationally syndicated TV newsmagazine Hard Copy. As she spoke, Diamond leaned intensely forward, suggesting that she and her hairdo might leap right through the screen at any moment. A scary soundtrack swelled, then jump cuts from security-camera footage of a liquor store holdup. There was a three-minute reporter-ride-along with Miami homicide cop Confesor Gonzalez, who discussed crime scene investigation. Though the story grew vague and disjointed and never proved its thesis (murder on the rise!) the gist was crystal clear: Miami, as we all know, is not just colorful but increasingly lethal.

Not true.
While Miami remains the undisputed car-theft capital of the United States, homicide has fallen out of fashion here. Despite Dade's enduringly wicked image, our homicide rate (measured against the county's population as a whole) has not "skyrocketed" at all. In fact, it has declined steadily since 1981, to the point where it appears to have reached a twenty-year low -- a fact that startles even veteran homicide detectives.

According to the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office, there were 621 homicides here in 1981, the highest annual body count ever. Last year there were only 347 homicides. If the remaining half of 1996 mirrors the past six months -- and investigators say there's no reason it shouldn't -- this year will see yet another decline.

The mayhem has abated even though Dade has attracted more and more inhabitants. The rate of killings per 100,000 residents peaked at 36.1 in the early Eighties, dropped into the twenties for the remainder of the decade, hit the teens for the first time in recent history in 1992, and sank to 16.9 last year. The first half of 1996 has seen 15.9 killings per 100,000 residents -- the lowest rate since 1976.

The countywide trend also holds true inside Miami city limits. The number of murder investigations undertaken by the Miami Police Department topped out at 220 in 1980 but has generally gone down ever since, staying below 140 for all but one of the past six years. ("Murder" is defined as a criminal offense, while the broader term "homicide" includes justifiable killings). Last year's murders numbered 111, making 1995 the least lethal year since 1978. (There have been 60 murders in Miami during the past six months, leading detectives to hope for a 1996 total of about 120.)

Bill Wilbanks, a professor of criminology at Florida International University, points out that homicide has also declined nationally, and that Florida's statewide murder rate of 8.3 per 100,000 residents is significantly below the national average of 9.0. Wilbanks concedes that he and other expert observers are mystified by the recent local experience.

"I don't know that I have any explanation," he says. "It has something to do with the larger culture. What that is, I don't know. All I can say is we had a high level of anger in this community in the early Eighties -- riots, the Mariel boatlift, Colombian drug wars -- and I guess that has gradually diminished."

Closer to the street, veteran homicide detectives offer a few educated guesses.

"To a certain degree, people are protecting themselves better," says Lt. Gerald N. Green, a Miami police investigator with twenty years of homicide experience. "We used to have a lot of convenience-store murders, maybe one a month, but convenience stores have cameras now. You go in a jewelry store, you have to get buzzed through the door. Home invasions are down because of all these gated, guarded communities.

"Another thing: When I was younger, I used to drink at some of the bars up on West Dixie Highway, but the DUI squads ran six of 'em out of business. Alcohol is involved in a large percentage of killings, and I think DUI enforcement has cut down on murders. I remember this place called the Inca Bar down on Flagler -- I think in six weeks I handled seven murders there back in the Eighties. That just doesn't happen any more."

Green also believes that new attention to domestic violence may have prevented several homicides. He is helping the department set up a fatality review board for domestic homicides that will attempt to glean insights into familial killings so that cops can prevent others.

Sgt. Al Singleton joined the Metro-Dade homicide bureau in 1978 and got a ringside seat for the worst period of bloodshed in Miami's recent history. A specialist in drug-related homicides, he has watched those numbers drop from thirty percent of total killings (in 1981) to twenty percent (1987), to about eight percent during the Nineties.

"The kind of outright violence we had -- machine gunnings at intersections and suburban shopping malls -- brought unnecessary heat to the drug operations," Singleton notes.

Part of the heat came from federal law-enforcement agents working with then-vice president George Bush's Florida Antidrug Task Force. Singleton says the program helped push some drug operations out of town and persuaded others to adopt less flamboyantly sanguinary business practices.

Although not designed for use in city-to-city comparisons, the latest U.S. Department of Justice murder figures show Miami has dropped well below the number-one position it held fifteen years ago. Two dozen other metropolitan areas now have much higher murder rates, including smaller cities such as Little Rock, Memphis, and Richmond, Virginia. (New Orleans is the new heavyweight champ, with a murder rate two and a half times Miami's.) The Magic City's fatal reputation lives on, however, and not just in the minds of out-of-towners.

"Even myself, I find it hard to believe the murder rate is down, because of what I see on TV," says Green, the Miami homicide detective. "Starting at ten o'clock, all you see is one killing after another. Look at the last few days: We had another murder-suicide, we had a drive-by on the 112 expressway, we had the Pizza Hut killing. What we have in Dade County are these high-profile cases, these atrocious whodunits and vicious killings by young people. Then there are tourist killings: They're an incredibly small percentage of the murders, but they get the highest percentage of headlines."

Says Wilbanks, the FIU criminologist: "If you walked up to a crowd of people and told them Dade County homicide rates are at a twenty-year low, 99 percent would say, 'I don't believe you, where'd you get that?' We haven't let go of the myth. Maybe the myth has some utilitarian purpose. It almost seems that we want to believe we're horrendous.


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