York City's homicide rate mirroring 2018

The scene of a fatal shooting in the 400 block of West King Street in York City, shown Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. Paint marks where multiple shell casings were found following the Friday night shooting. The Dawn J. Sagert photo

The fatal shooting of a York City man last week was the 12th criminal homicide for the city so far this year, nearly matching the total of 13 for 2018.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said the city's total criminal homicides is the same as it was at this time last year. There was a 13th killing deemed a homicide in the city this year, however it was determined to be justified. 

“Obviously every (homicide) hurts, but we believe that some of the stuff we are implementing, specifically the Group Violence Initiative, is having beneficial results,” he said.

In 2017, York City, a city of about 44,000, had a rate of 36 homicides per 100,000 residents, with 16 homicides in that year. For comparison, Chicago, a city of 2.7 million often derided for its gun violence, had 24 homicides per 100,000 residents that year, according to the Pew Research Center. Baltimore had 56 per 100,000.

As in 2019, no charges were filed in one 2017 York City homicide.

The rate went down to an average of 29 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2018. 

“This is our second year in a row that we are down from 2017," Helfrich said.

The national homicide rate is about five per 100,000, according to FBI data and has trended downward over the past two decades. 

Both Chester, in Delaware County, and Harrisburg, in Dauphin County, had higher homicide rates in 2018.

Harrisburg Police said there were 16 homicides in 2018, and three of them were police-involved. That is about 33 homicides per 100,000 people for Harrisburg.

Chester has a population of about 33,000, and city officials have said that there were 18 homicides there in 2018. That is about 53 homicides per 100,000 people.

Wilkes-Barre, in Luzerne County, which has a similar population size as York City, saw an average of about 15 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2018, with six homicides last year.

In  Lancaster, which has a population of about 59,000, there were about five homicides per 100,000 people with three homicides last year.

York, Harrisburg and Chester all have a poverty rate of between 30% and 35%, according to U.S. Census data. Lancaster and Wilkes-Barre have  poverty rates of about 26% and 29%, respectively.

Helfrich noted that living in poverty is a contributor of violence in the city.

“If a young person doesn't have the right things that they need, it’s very easy to fall in with gangs or violent individuals," he said.

He said the city has applied for $1 million in funding from the Department of Justice to get job training to those incarcerated. 

Helfrich added that the city also is working with Harrisburg Area Community College on job training programs.

“As long as we have these huge economic disparities, we are going to be fertile grounds for violence," he said.

He also noted that people coming outside of the city are bringing violence into it. The mayor said local social conditions can welcome outside actors.

Some of those have a "prison mentality," where any form of disrespect can be viewed as a cause for violence, similar to dueling in the 18th and 19th centuries among wealthy aristocrats, Helfrich said.

“It’s not any different for the young poor kids in our community as it was for the rich white aristocrats in the late 1700s and early 1800s — it’s like the same mentality," he said. "We live for respect.”

Helfrich said he is trying to get the message that "respect" isn't as important as someone's life.

“But unlike the old white aristocrats who had everything in front of them…. A lot of these young people believe that respect is the only thing that they do have," he said.

GVI: The premise of GVI, offered through the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and its National Network of Safe Communities, is that a very small number of people in any city perpetrate the vast majority of violent crimes.

So to reduce violent crime, law enforcement has to identify and target that small group of people, who are often involved in gangs or the drug trade, or both. Those targeted during call-in presentations then carry the message back to their associates.

In 2017, GVI's first year, the number of shootings was nearly halved from 2016, according to Helfrich. But the number of homicides nearly doubled to 15 from eight the year before.

Shootings went up to 61 in 2018, but the homicides dropped to 13, he said. So far this year in York City, there have been 43 shootings where at least one person was shot.

The mayor noted there are several GVI efforts being done to curb violence in the city.

“A lot of the things we’re doing certainly take more time to be effective," he said.

There have been 90 illegal guns taken off the street, Helfrich said, adding that nearly 30 of them were taken by the department's GVI team. 

Helfrich said there is going to be a new juvenile component of GVI. He said half of violent crime in 2017 was committed by juveniles.

“The entire idea of GVI is that we get to the young people as early as we can and we try to steer them in the right direction," he said.

— Reach Christopher Dornblaser at cdornblaser@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @YDDornblaser.