Back when Sgt. John Kaminski started out in Homicide in the 1960s, the most common murder cases were barroom brawls.
There was a bar on every street corner in Cleveland in those days, and the men who worked in the city’s steel and automobile plants took the trolley to their jobs, stopping off for a shot and a beer on their way home. In some bars, it was like clockwork, Kaminski remembers. After a few drinks, a patron would insult the man on the next stool, usually a friend, and pretty soon, a knife or a gun would be pulled out and one of the customers would be dead.
No more. The factories, the bars and that way of life are largely gone. “I can’t even remember the last bar fight,” said Kaminski, 65, who has been a homicide detective for 30 years.
The virtual disappearance of barroom killings is part of a profound change in American crime and society. Murders committed by adults have dropped almost in half over the last 15 years.
In 1994, the last year for which figures are available, there were only 4.7 homicides per 100,000 adults 25 years or older, compared with 8.1 in 1981, according to an analysis of FBI data by James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Barroom killings have fallen 69 percent nationwide since 1981.
The drop in adult homicides is perhaps the sharpest in the nation’s history and is even more pronounced among blacks than whites. It has helped drive a decline in murder rates reported by many cities over the last three years, experts say.
But until recently, because it has been overshadowed by a sharp rise in juvenile murders, this long-term downward trend largely has been overlooked by police chiefs, politicians and academic criminologists.
Now, if the drop-off in juvenile homicide rates announced earlier this month by Attorney General Janet Reno continues, the United States could experience the first sustained decline in murder since the crime wave that began in the mid-1960s.
Homicide detectives have their own theories, based on years of street experience, for the long-term decline in adult murders that go beyond dry statistics and academic explanations. In interviews in precinct houses, squad cars and threadbare offices in Buffalo, N.Y.; Chicago; Dallas; and Cleveland, detectives offered these reasons:
A drop of almost 40 percent in killings among spouses and other partners as society has become less tolerant of domestic violence and officers nationwide are required to make arrests whenever they find evidence of physical harm, heading off possible fatal violence.
The popular calls for tougher prison sentences, which have resulted in a tripling of the prison population from 1980 to 1994, coinciding with the decline in adult homicides. (Experts disagree on how to measure the results of the imprisonment boom. But Sgt. Tom Keane, a detective in Chicago since 1978, said that “if the bad guys are in prison, they can’t commit another murder.”)
An improvement in emergency medical services and hospital trauma centers so that many gunshot victims who might have died in the past are being saved now.
The aging of the baby-boom generation, many of whose members in 1980 were still in the prime age for committing crime, but who are now in their early 30s to 50. (“I think it’s the baby boomers getting older,” said Detective Edward Kovacic of Cleveland.)