People get killed

25 Apr

The 2013 State of the City report is out. It’s overflowing with charts and factoids, so I’ll probably be doing several posts on it. Many are interesting, some are surprisingly illustrative, and a few are fairly problematic.

The one I’m starting with is one of the latter.

The graphic in question is on page 24 of the pdf version of the report. I can’t embed it, so here’s what it looks like:

Philadelphia Homicide Victims: Who They Are and How They Died

88% male

82% gunshot

81% prior arrests

80% African American

74% killed outside

62% age 18-34

Do you get the feeling that one of these things is not like the others? Yes, me too.

In a city of 1.5 million residents, 300,000 of whom are ex-offenders (no, that’s not a typo), flagging homicide victims as having a “prior arrest” isn’t particularly useful as a descriptor.

It is, however, a fairly transparent way to signal don’t worry folks, you’re not really at risk.

I don’t know how many people got mailed a copy of Pew’s report, but I’d be willing to bet that their demographics are pretty different from those of the homicide victims cited above.

So why does this matter? Well, Pew is the multi-billion-dollar gorilla in our city. The data they choose to highlight, and the way they choose to illustrate it, have strong ripple effects.

Suggesting — even obliquely — that one of the six most relevant facts about people who were killed in our city is their arrest record is a pretty remarkable decision. And conscious or not, it was a decision: You could just as well ask how many of them had struggled to find work, for example.

I went looking for a photo to put with this post, but couldn’t find anything non-copyrighted and suitable. I may come back and add one later.

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