Miami was once a murder capital. The gunfire deaths this year tell a new story

Santonio Carter, who has become active with Miami’s youth since the death of his 6-year-old son, poses in front of a picture of King Carter in his football uniform.
Santonio Carter, who has become active with Miami’s youth since the death of his 6-year-old son, poses in front of a picture of King Carter in his football uniform.

Is Miami, once labeled “Paradise Lost” by Time magazine because of a searing homicide rate fueled by a crippling drug trade, now one of the safest major cities in the U.S. when it comes to gunfire deaths?

Of the 26 homicides over the first six months of this year in Miami, only 16 were due to gunfire, records obtained from the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner and the city’s police department show.

Both numbers represent historic lows for a city that often racked up close to 300 homicides during the 1980s and which has seen those numbers drop by about 75 percent or more the past three years.

The recent homicide numbers in Miami, a metropolitan center with a population of 450,000 that routinely doubles during the workweek and swells even more during peak tourist season, matches up well with other cities of comparable populations.

In the first six months of this year, Baltimore, with a slightly larger population than Miami, has seen more than 170 homicides. Kansas City had 98. Milwaukee had 60 and Atlanta, 57.

Yet, “that stigma continues. We still have a bad rap,” said Miami Police Assistant Chief Jorge Colina. “We’re not Paradise Lost anymore. We’re just paradise. It was madness before.”

Despite the significant drop in homicides during the first half of this year, crime science experts warn to be careful when it comes to small sample sizes. Homicides have steadily decreased in Miami the past decade. Last year, the city recorded 60 homicides. In 2015 there were 75 and in 2014 Miami had 81 homicides.

Jerry Ratcliffe, who teaches criminal justice at Temple University and directs the school’s Center for Security and Crime Science, urged caution when compiling crime statistics over a six-month period. In a recent blog he cited Philadelphia, where a spike in the first quarter of 2014 saw homicides rise by almost 40 percent. Media outlets jumped at the report, Ratcliffe said. Yet by the end of the year the city had the same number of homicides as the previous year.

“To use calendar year-to-date comparisons with any confidence, we have to wait until the end of October before we can be more than 50 percent confident that the year-to-date is indicative of how we will enter the New Year,” Ratcliffe wrote.

There are signs that Miami’s recent homicide numbers are spreading to jurisdictions outside the city.

Over the four-day July 4 weekend, Chicago, which has roughly the same population as Miami-Dade County’s 2.6 million, was plagued by more than 100 shootings and 14 homicides.

Number of shooting deaths in Miami-Dade over the same weekend: Zero.

Homicides in unincorporated Miami-Dade, the county’s central core that includes several of the highest-crime neighborhoods, compare reasonably well with other regions with similar populations. With a population of 1.2 million, unincorporated Miami-Dade had 54 homicides during the first six months of this year, county police records show.

So far this year in Philadelphia, which has a similar population, there have been 122 homicides. Jacksonville, which has about two-thirds the population of unincorporated Miami-Dade, has seen 52 homicides so far this year. Major metro regions with better per capita crime rates than Miami-Dade include Denver and San Francisco.

In all of Miami-Dade County, which has about three dozen municipalities and about as many police departments, there were 106 homicides in the first six months of this year. Last year all of Miami-Dade had 231 homicides. So far this year Chicago has had 317 and Houston, with a slightly smaller population, recorded 158.

“I definitely can feel it,” said Santonio Carter, who lost his 6-year-old son King Carter to a stray bullet more than a year ago. “People were seeing so many kids getting shot it really shook up homes. And this time it’s gonna last. People are tired of it.”

Perhaps most heartening in a community that has agonized over the number of teens and children killed by gunfire the past decade: Only one teenager under the age of 18 has been shot and killed so far this year inside the county’s two largest policing districts, Miami and unincorporated Miami-Dade County.

That’s an eye-popping statistic in a region where teenage shooting deaths have become a rallying cry for political leaders and those most affected by gun violence. Last year at this time, the community was still reeling after the shooting death of King Carter, 6, struck by a stray bullet at his apartment complex as he was walking to the store to buy candy.

Then in August another child was killed when 8-year-old Jada Page was shot in the head as she played in her front yard, getting ready to go to the movies with her father.

A Miami Herald investigation two years ago showed that 316 teens and children, an average of more than 30 each year, had been lost to gunfire between 2006 and 2015.

Police and some community leaders attribute the drop in gunfire deaths in Miami to a combination of factors: sharing of intelligence between policing agencies, more parental involvement, a persistent cry from the community to end gun violence, even new medical life-saving techniques used by surgeons who have learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We had to build bridges to open lines of trust and communication,” said Miami-Dade Homicide Maj. Calvin James. “We need the information that they have. Somewhere in the past these relationships were lost. So we made changes. And we’re starting to see the fruits of those changes.”

“Our biggest thing were the juveniles. We kept a constant flow of information in the community. If there was a beef [between two kids] we knew about, we spoke to schools police,” said Miami Homicide Lt. Keandra Simmons. “We knocked on doors [of parents]. There’s been a back and forth.”

The only juvenile under 18 to be shot and killed so far this year in unincorporated Miami-Dade is Calixto Logan. The 15-year-old was murdered on a sidewalk less than a block from his Northwest Miami-Dade home, while he was walking home from the store with his sisters. And in the first six months of this year, no one under 18 has been shot and killed in Miami.

Yet for all the improvement, many of the homicides in Miami and Miami-Dade happen in the same places, in the central core of the county in neighborhoods including Liberty City, Brownsville, Allapattah and Little Haiti. That means though shooting deaths are down overall, the violence seems intense to the people who live in those neighborhoods.

Tangela Sears — an anti-violence advocate who lost her son to gunfire two years ago and who now runs a support group for parents who lost children to gun violence — said she knows mothers who are so fearful of the streets, they’ve purchased guns.

Sears was front and center in the fight to pass a bill in Tallahassee that would protect witnesses of shootings from the public until trial. The controversial bill finally passed this year.

“Whether the numbers are up or down in the black community, we’re still going to funerals every week,” Sears said.

“It’s difficult to go to the gas station. It’s difficult to go to the store,” Sears said. “You don’t know if you’re going to make it home.”