In the first two months of this year there have been just four homicides in the city of Miami — a historically low and probably unsustainable pace but also part of a long and often overlooked trend.
Miami may never shake its deadly Cocaine Cowboys reputation in some quarters but — at least judging by the murder count — the city is far less dangerous than it was decades ago. The last two years combined recorded just 97 homicides — the lowest tolls since 1964 when the city had about 100,000 fewer people. If this year’s pace continues, which police and crime analysts suspect is a long shot, it would cut even those low annual numbers in half.
What’s going on? Hard to credit one big reason but police, other experts and community members point to a lot of small ones combined: Better communication between residents and cops. More officers on the streets. The department’s high-tech crime-fighting unit responds more rapidly to major crimes. Families, tired of losing loved ones, stepping up. And some people with gang affiliations moving out.
Can the peace and quiet hold? Even Miami Mayor Francis Suarez — who has touted the city’s drop in violent crime as part of the “Miami miracle” during TV appearances as he flirts with a potential run for president — admits that’s unlikely.
“It’s a considerably small sample size, but we’ve started the year off well,” he said.
Still, he said, more cops on the street and a large investment in technology only helped matters.
Miami isn’t alone in seeing a steady decline in murders — but the city also stands out by avoiding the bloody spike that hit many major cities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Squash beefs before they escalate
Miami Police Chief Manny Morales believes a big part of the puzzle has been working hand in hand with community groups like the Circle of Brotherhood and Mothers of Murdered Children to reduce retaliation shootings, which can create widespread collateral damage from otherwise isolated acts of violence.
“The idea is to squash arguments or beefs before they escalate to gunfire,” the chief said. “These are people who want street justice and who historically do not cooperate.”
The Circle of Brotherhood was formed in 2012 to help solve community problems and improve living conditions. Executive Director Lyle Muhammad told the Miami Herald’s Editorial Board recently that its members flood communities to try to stem bloodshed.
“We have boots on the ground called The Peacemakers,” he said.
Although he’s cautious not to celebrate just two months into an unpredictable year ahead, Morales believes the city is “bearing the fruits” of being more methodical and focused. He said the agency now mostly issues civil citations to street corner drunks, instead of hauling them off to jail.
“It’s quality over quantity,” Morales said. “Arresting someone drinking beer at the corner store doesn’t work. It only upsets the community. We realize jail is not for everyone.”
Morales points to what he believes is an even better indicator of the falling crime rate than murders: Victims simply struck by gunfire. So far this year, 10 people in Miami have been shot. A year ago at this time, the number was 34. Those numbers, known to police as contact shootings, are important because they aren’t impacted by outside variables like better emergency medical techniques that now save more gunshot victims from winding up in the morgue . Of the four deaths so far in 2023, three people were killed by gunfire. A fourth was hit and killed by her own vehicle, which had been stolen
Tangela Sears, who runs Miami’s chapter of Mothers of Murdered Children, said not only are Miami police now more visible in neighborhoods, they also have been showing up frequently at neighborhood meetings.
“When you see the police up and down the street, it’s very difficult to commit a drive-by shooting because they may be on the corner,” said Sears, who lost a son to gunfire in Tallahassee almost a decade ago. “And the relationships are there. They’re at homeowners group meetings almost every night. They’re creating plans within their neighborhood and they’re working closely with the Circle of Brotherhood, Mothers of Murdered Children and victim advocates. These things add up.”
Some still feel underserved by the police
Still, not everyone is certain police are moving in the right direction. Francois Alexandre, a member of the city’s Community Relations Board who also helps residents in the community through food distribution, said while the low homicide rate is terrific, he’s not certain the people who need help in the community the most are receiving it.
“So you stop crime. But what about the brother who was going to rob a bank to feed his family. How is he being helped?” he asked. “I see more police on the streets and that reduces the crime rate. I just think community policing could be a whole lot better. How to police the community is not even talked about with residents.”
Alexandre has his own history with Miami Police. In 2013, while celebrating a Miami Heat championship on Biscayne Boulevard, he was severely beaten by officers as he videotaped them forcing people off the street. Charges against him were dropped and he eventually filed a civil rights lawsuit against the department that he lost on appeal. The experience pushed Alexandre to become an organizer during the massive nationwide police reform marches in the summer of 2020. He also ran unsuccessfully for a commission seat in Miami’s District 2 in 2021.
Nationally, numbers declined last year
Nationally, overall murders declined by 7 percent in the country’s 45 most populated cities in 2022 — a relief to some that had seen surges as many people struggled with unemployment, lockdowns and psychological turmoil during the first two years of the pandemic.
Miami recorded 49 homicides in 2022. With a population of about 440,000 according to the US Census Bureau, that was better than most cities of similar size. For instance, Atlanta, with about half a million residents, saw 170 murders in 2022 alone, a slight increase from the previous two years when the city totaled a combined 321 homicides.
Homicides in Baltimore slowed slightly in 2022. The city of 600,000 has suffered through historic murder rates the past three years. It peaked in 2021 when there were 348 homicides. A year later there were 338 homicides and last year Baltimore had 332.
Even Chicago — perhaps the hardest hit city in the country when it comes to murders the past decade — saw a significant decline in 2022 when it recorded 695 homicides, down from the 797 the year before, which was a 25-year high. The midwestern city has a population of just under 3 million that’s on par with all of Miami-Dade County. By comparison, Miami-Dade County overall totaled 258 homicides last year.
Miami’s declining homicide numbers have been a pattern for most of the past decade. With the exception of 2020, Miami has had fewer than 60 homicides each year going back to 2016. It’s been a dramatic shift for a city that routinely racked up close to 300 homicides a year in the drug-fueled 1980s, an era when Time Magazine ran a cover on South Florida titled Paradise Lost?.
According to Unified Crime Reporting numbers, which are compiled by municipalities and passed along to the FBI, the last time Miami had more than 50 homicides, other than the pandemic year of 2020, was in 2017. The report also shows total major crimes, which includes categories like rape and larceny, which remained fairly consistent last year, compared to previous years. The one category that rose significantly was motor vehicle thefts, which was up about 15 percent.
Overall in 2022, Miami-Dade County saw a slight uptick in murders, according to records from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office. There were 258 homicides in all of Miami-Dade County, with a population pushing three million and 34 municipalities. That was about a 5 percent increase from the 245 murders in 2021.
According to the Miami-Dade Police Department, which covers mostly unincorporated parts of the county and an area more than twice the size of Miami, 109 people were murdered in 2022, only one more than the previous year.
Muhammad, who directs the Circle of Brotherhood, which also works with the office of Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez, said he’s confident major crimes numbers would be lower and his group’s impact greater with additional resources.
“We directly respond to shootings with ‘credible messengers.’ And we’re very trusted messengers. It enables us to get to people before things go to other levels,” he said. “With the proper resources we can get crime even lower, get to the culture of violence.”