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Why Is Springfield Getting Crime-Fighting Help from the DOJ?

The Department of Justice skipped over Chicago (and other major cities with crime problems) and brought in the state capital for a new partnership. But the numbers suggest it’s not an odd decision.

We were wondering, too.   Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

Chicago has long been (and still is) a punching bag for the president, so when his attorney general and close ally Jeff Sessions announced a slate of cities for a Justice Department program to combat crime that didn’t include Chicago, it surprised a lot of people. When that slate included, instead, the state capital, it further surprised people, including me.

The reasons are somewhat opaque. But looking at the numbers, it makes some sense.

I pulled the violent-crime-rate statistics from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting database. They caution against ranking cities by their numbers for myriad good reasons, so that’s worth keeping in mind; some cities might have better or worse departments and crime reporting, some cities might have lower overall crime rates but areas with high crime, and so forth. So while I wouldn’t read too much into the specific order of the cities, it seems notable that Springfield’s rate is pretty high among comparably sized cities.

So, it’s up there. And among the cities announced as part of the DOJ partnership, so are Buffalo, Kansas City, Birmingham, Lansing, Cincinnati, and Baton Rouge. Toledo’s numbers aren’t included in the FBI’s data because they don’t meet certain UCR guidelines, but in 2014 the state reports a rate of 936 violent crimes per 100,000 people in 2014; the number was 962 in 2013.

Three cities in the DOJ partnership are bigger than 500,000 but have comparable rates: Indianapolis (1,187 per 100k in the same time frame), Houston (999 per 100,000), and Memphis (1,668). One is smaller than 100,000: Jackson, Tennessee, with a rate of 1,140 per 100,000. (In Jackson, the number ranged from a low of 833 to a high of 1,479 during that time period; as a small city it makes sense that its numbers would be more variable, one reason the FBI is cautious about ranking.)

There are, of course, plenty of other cities with comparable or higher violent crime rates, like East Saint Louis, Illinois, or Gary, Indiana (933 per 100,000). But Springfield isn’t an outlier among the cities chosen.

Still, violent crime rate is not the only factor. John Fritze of the Baltimore Sun wondered why his city was passed over, especially since its 162 homicides in 2017 put it at a staggering pace; Chicago’s about 4.5 times the size with less than double the number of murders. The DOJ wouldn’t tell Fritze much, other than that, besides the crime rate, the cities chosen “must also ‘demonstrate a commitment to reducing violent crime and be ready to receive the intensive training and technical assistance available.’” But he also learned that aside from the help of “diagnostic teams,” the partnership “is not a grant program, and it does not appear to include any new funding,” concluding that “because Baltimore already receives technical and training assistance from the Department of Justice, it’s not clear what the city will lose by not taking part.”

The DOJ plans to roll out more cities in the partnership, so it’s still possible Chicago could get assistance, but the presence of Springfield isn’t as odd as it seems at first glance.

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