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Milwaukee reached its grim homicide milestone the week of Nov. 23, when a 33-year-old man was killed in a shooting, bringing the homicide tally to 197 up to that date.
In 2019, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s homicide tracker, there were 111 homicides.
In 2020, the number rose to 204; in 2021, the figure had climbed to 212 homicides.
To have doubled in two years from 111 in 2019, the tally would have to have reached 222 in 2021. So Steil’s “nearly doubled” claim is in the ballpark.
The November 2022 midterm elections saw plenty of issues take center stage, including Roe v. Wade, inflation and gasoline prices. But a major voter issue has not receded from the public consciousness — crime, or more specifically — homicides.
American cities, large and small, are grappling with how to stem the tide of violence as records are broken and families shattered. In Wisconsin, U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, R-Janesville, zeroed in on the state’s largest city.
"Milwaukee is on pace for a third straight homicide record," Steil said in a Nov. 15 tweet. "The rate has nearly doubled in the past two years. The men and women of law enforcement need our support to protect our communities from violent crime."
It is well known that Milwaukee is on pace for a third straight year of record homicides. But we wondered about the second part: Has the rate really nearly doubled in the past two years?
Let’s take a look.
When asked to support the claim, Grace White, Steil’s communications director, pointed to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports, including a Nov. 23 article detailing how the city reached a grim milestone that week when a 33-year-old man was killed in a shooting on the 2900 block of North 46th Street, which marked the seventh homicide police reported in a nine-day period. That shooting brought Milwaukee’s preliminary homicide total to 197 for the year.
The Journal Sentinel’s homicide database is preliminary and figures can change as an investigation continues. If a fatality initially categorized as a homicide is later determined to be self-defense, for example, it would be removed from the homicide total. If a death is first categorized as an accident but investigation uncovers a deliberate killing, the tally would change then, too.
An example of the latter is an incident making national headlines involving a 10-year-old boy initially charged with first-degree reckless homicide as an adult in the Nov. 21 shooting death of his mother. On Dec. 8, prosecutors filed an alternative charge of first-degree intentional homicide against the boy.
The tragedy was initially reported to have been an accident, but according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the boy’s relatives later contacted police questioning his story, and the child admitted he intentionally pointed a gun at his mother before shooting her, allegedly because she wouldn't allow him to buy an expensive virtual reality headset from Amazon.
Most, but not all, homicides are reported to the federal government as part of the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting system. The Milwaukee Police Department also maintains homicide statistics. So, each homicide database may see its figures adjusted upward or downward, depending on what emerges in an investigation.
A check of the Milwaukee Police Department’s Crime Maps & Statistics, showed homicides as of Dec. 7, were at 203. Those figures include five fatal shootings over the Dec.3-5 weekend in Milwaukee that claimed the lives of a 16-year-old boy, 17-year-old boy, 27-year-old man, a 36-year-old woman and a 50-year-old man.
Homicides over two years
White, of Steil’s office, cited the Journal Sentinel’s homicide database, which recorded Milwaukee homicides in 2019 at 111. In 2020, the number rose to 204. In 2021, the figure had climbed to 212 homicides. So, to have doubled in two years from 111 in 2019, the tally would have to have reached 222 in 2021.
So Steil’s "nearly doubled" claim is in the ballpark.
"Data shows crime is surging in Wisconsin and across the nation," Steil said in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin. "Soft on crime policies which include efforts to defund the police and eliminate cash bail allow criminals to remain on our streets and make our communities unsafe."
Steil cited several resources available to address the issue, including increasing training for law enforcement, hiring more officers, implementing stronger sentencing on repeat offenders and violent criminals and ending low/no bail policies by local prosecutors.
Behind the surge
Experts have cited a variety of theories to explain the homicide rates, including fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment, homelessness, drug violence and easy availability of guns.
Kenneth Streit, University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School Clinical associate professor, noted fluctuations in Milwaukee homicides go back decades.
Streit said the average for Milwaukee County (slightly more than city) for 1984 to 1990 was 94 homicides, and "this included the rapid escalation beginning in 1988 associated with drug trade. The average for the years 1991 to 1997 was 147, which included the peak year of 1991 (163)."
The University of Wisconsin professor pointed out that numbers and rates vary widely among large U.S. cities.
"This has been the case for the last two decades," Streit said. "Milwaukee is one of the few which not only had high rates (nearly exclusively related to African American victims) prior to 2020 and then having huge percentage increases above those rates which remain through 2022."
Streit explained the reductions of homicides during the 1990s are associated with federal drug laws that were supported — at that time —by Black elected officials.
"To a large extent, those efforts may have been effective because many shootings at that time were related to large drug transactions," Streit said. "Today's shootings do not appear to be primarily related to drugs. Three decades after the peak of 1991, there are exponentially more guns readily available and shootings appear to be far more common for retaliation and settling disputes."
Criminal defense attorney and Marquette Law School Adjunct Professor Craig Mastantuono said politician statements about defunding of police or eliminating cash bail are off-the-mark rhetoric, because neither has actually occurred.
"The reality is that failure by our state legislature to provide Milwaukee with a fair portion of shared revenue or the ability to implement other revenue-raising measures have effectively frozen police funding," Mastantuono said.
Historically since pre-pandemic years, the Marquette adjunct professor said, homicides are currently on the rise, as are nonfatal shootings.
"This is a national trend and a local trend," Mastantuono said. "Since the homicide numbers were trending downward both nationally and locally for several years prior to 2020, it would be entirely illogical to ignore the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on the country’s mental health as a whole. People who are violent or commit crimes are a microcosm of larger society, and we have all been witness to a general rise in crisis, stress, depression and anxiety in every quarter of our larger society."
Steil said In Milwaukee, "the (homicide) rate has nearly doubled in the past two years."
The Journal Sentinel’s homicide database recorded Milwaukee homicides in 2019 at 111. In 2020, the number rose to 204. In 2021, the figure climbed to 212 homicides. So Steil’s "nearly doubled" claim is on the mark.
For a statement that is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing, our rating is True.
U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil, Twitter, Nov. 15, 2022
Email, Grace White, U.S. Rep. Bryan Steil staff, Nov. 30, 2022
Email, UW-Madison Professor Kenneth Streit, Dec. 7, 2022
Email, Attorney Craig Mastantuono, Dec. 6, 2022
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Milwaukee broke its homicide record for a third straight year. Here's why, and what officials are doing about it," Nov. 23, 2022
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "‘Absolute family tragedy’: 10-year-old Milwaukee boy charged as an adult in the fatal shooting of his mother," Nov. 30, 2022
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Prosecutors file alternative charge of intentional homicide against 10-year-old," Dec. 8, 2022
Milwaukee Police Department’s Crime Maps & Statistics
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "2 teens killed in separate shootings in Milwaukee, as number of young victims rises," Dec. 6, 2022
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