Did Portland Become America’s Murder Capital?

The main thing that’s misleading about this statistic is that it implies things were fine in early 2020.

When the local murder rate spiked, I consoled myself that it’s rising in most U.S. cities; we’re just along for the ride. Then I saw that Portland homicides are up 327%, while the national average is 12%. How did we become America’s murder capital? —Say Hello to My Little Friend

Well, Friend, the good news is that the figure you’re citing is misleading (though technically correct). The bad news is that Portland homicides really are surging, and the main thing that’s misleading about this statistic is that it implies things were fine in early 2020.

Homicides in Portland from January through June 2021 really did triple compared to the same period in 2020. This made us No. 1 among American cities in that category, a fact gleefully trumpeted on right-wing social media as proof that “defund the police” was a one-way ticket to perdition.

But this isn’t a very useful way to look at the problem. To see why, consider Gilbert, Ariz. January-to-June homicides there were up 133% over last year—not in the same Stalinist-hellscape league as Portland, but good enough for No. 2 on the list.

Don’t recall hearing about this Phoenix suburb’s streets running red with blood? Maybe that’s because the number of homicides there in the first half of 2020 was…three. But in 2021, that figure rocketed up by four homicides to seven! (This inspired the new city motto, “Gilbert: Never more than one Larry the Cable Guy after-party away from a historic crime wave.”)

Portland’s sample sizes are larger, but not by enough to outweigh comparable effects of chance. As it happened, the first six months of 2020 were quiet in Portland, with only 16 homicides, compared with 47 in early 2021. (In fact, the first five months of 2020 had only six killings, briefly allowing the GOPosphere to crow that our murder rate was up by 530%.*)

Don’t feel too bad for 2020, though—Portland homicides came roaring back to finish the year at 57, dwarfing 2019′s 36. Which, in turn, crushed the previous year’s 26, which edged the prior year’s 25, which beat 2016′s puny 16.

Taken together, these numbers certainly suggest that homicides really are increasing substantially (and, let’s be honest, 2021 is probably going to knock 2020′s dick in the dirt, murderwise). What they don’t suggest, however, is a narrative where Democratic cities are doomed because we protested police brutality. Also, the mayor of Gilbert? A Republican. Just sayin’.

*The Fraternal Order of Police even posted a graphic claiming the figure was 800% because hey, why not?

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.

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