Domestic homicide in New York City (NYC) often increases and decreases with the overall rate of homicide and murder of the general population of the city; however, there are differences in the rate and types of domestic homicide in large urban areas such as NYC. Homicide in general in NYC, as in the rest of the United States, began to rise steadily beginning in the early 1960s, reached a peak in the early 1980s, then rose again to another peak in the early 1990s. Then, beginning in the early 1990s, homicide and murder in NYC, as in most other urban centers in the United States, began to decline steadily. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual Uniform Crime Report (UCR), the rate of homicide decreased 64 percent from 1990 to 2002. Criminology experts are continually debating the reasons for this significant crime decrease.
Measuring the scope of domestic homicide and proportion and variations with the overall rate of murder is a complex task because of difficulties encountered in categorizing and defining ‘‘domestic homicide.’’ Also, measuring domestic homicide is a relatively new phenomenon because of the relatively recent recognition and acknowledgment of domestic violence as a social problem. This recognition and acknowledgment has placed greater accountability on the police and law enforcement to properly investigate and record domestic violence incidents and prevent future occurrences. Additionally, more resources have become available to domestic violence victims from social services in recent decades, thereby heightening the awareness and subsequently the reporting of domestic violence. These factors make studying and determining long-term trends of domestic violence an onerous task.
Although police and law enforcement now have a greater degree of accountability, different police and law enforcement agencies have different definitions of what constitutes ‘‘domestic’’ homicide. Defining domestic homicide in a particular jurisdiction depends on legally defined relations as well as circumstantial, situational, and spatial factors surrounding the criminal incident. Legally defined relations refer to relationships between persons that constitute a ‘‘domestic’’ environment according to the legal code. For example, are domestic violence incidents limited to males and females who are legally married? This traditional relationship is the paradigm of domestic violence (i.e., the abusive male spouse repeatedly assaulting his lawfully wed wife inside their shared dwelling) and ultimately the type of domestic homicide that most persons envision. The inverse of this traditional stereotype is the female spouse ultimately defending herself and murdering her abusive husband out of self-defense or long-suffering post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the abuse. However, legal and relational characteristics and domestic homicide are much more complex.
Domestic relationships also include persons who are living together, regardless of gender, in the same household. A domestic relational characteristic may also include persons who are legally married but estranged from each other, or couples never legally married but estranged. This type of living arrangement engenders a significant amount of domestic homicide because the relationship is in decline and often one party is emotionally overwhelmed and prompted by despair to commit homicide. Domestic violence also includes parents assaulting their children and vice versa and siblings assaulting each other or other family members. Victims of domestic homicide tend to be younger than average homicide victims. According to murder research conducted by Mike Maltz (1998), the most dangerous period in a female’s life is during the first five years of her life, because the likelihood that she will be murdered by a family member or caregiver is the highest during those years. Also included is the extended family, such as cousins and in-laws. Close friends or persons who are not related yet live in the same household are another relational factor related to domestic homicide.
Circumstantial and situational characteristics also beget problems in defining and analyzing the scope of domestic violence and homicide. For example, the reason that precipitated a family or domestic homicide may also be a great unknown to the police and law enforcement investigators. In some cases of domestic violence, there is a preplanned motive, and the victim-offender relationship is easily known. However, most domestic homicides involve some form of victim precipitation such as an argument or violence leading up to the homicide. For example, although the homicide should not be mitigated, domestic homicide is often the result of a vicious argument that has increased to the next level of violence on the continuum often aggravated by the victim, offender, or both under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Often in some jurisdictions, if a homicide has been determined to have been justified by self-defense, it is not counted as a murder, thereby muddling the scope of the problem.
Spatial circumstances regarding the location of the homicide are also an issue when attempting to measure and analyze the crime. Is the physical location of the homicide (home or dwelling) the lone factor? Often persons currently or formerly involved in a relationship may get into an encounter in a public area or at a third-party location. Therefore, the spatial location of the incident becomes an issue when measuring domestic violence homicide.
The UCR’s Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR) is the standard in recording homicides for statistical and analytical purposes. The SHR list of victim-offender relationship categories highlights the difficulties of gauging the extent of domestic homicide. There are twenty-one categories of relationships that can be defined as domestic, not including a category entitled ‘‘Acquaintance.’’ According to the SHR, the police knew the relationship between the victim and offender in two-thirds of the cases in all homicides occurring from 1976 through 2002. Nationally, domestic homicide comprised 43.8 percent of homicides in which the relationship was known. The national rate is significantly higher than the rate in NYC (9 percent) over the same time period.
This could be due to the high percentage of immigrants in NYC. The percentage of immigrants as part of the total population of NYC is 36 percent, compared with the national average of 11 percent. The problems of measuring domestic violence are particularly acute in urban centers such as NYC because of the increased percentage of immigrants. Immigrants may not trust the authorities, and there may also be cultural and language barriers preventing them from seeking help. Female victims in immigrant communities may be reluctant to report violence or seek intervention from the police or social services; ultimately their abuse may lead to a homicide.
The differences may also reflect the diversity of living arrangements and rate of violent crime in urban centers such as NYC. For example, the average of victims who were related to the offender as a ‘‘husband’’ or ‘‘wife’’ was over 8 percent nationally but less than 2 percent in NYC. Additionally, the likelihood of homicide during the commission of a robbery or burglary is increased in urban areas, lessening the percentage rate of domestic homicides.
Domestic homicide in urban centers such as NYC does present a different crime problem than domestic homicide in suburban and rural areas. The differences are based on the demographics of the population, the living arrangements, and the provincialism of police and law enforcement authorities who are mandated to investigate initial incidents and make proper referrals to other authorities charged with preventing future occurrences of domestic violence. Recognition of domestic violence in general has heightened the awareness of the problem, although cultural and definitional barriers persist, making domestic homicide in urban areas a perennial social problem.
- Fox, James A. ‘‘Uniform Crime Reports: Homicide Reports, 1976–2002, Study no. 4179.’’ http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/NACJD/studies/4179 (accessed August 27, 2013).
- Maltz, Michael D. ‘‘Visualizing Homicide: A Research Note.’’ Journal of Quantitative Criminology 15, no. 4 (1998): 397–410.
- New York City Department of City Planning. ‘‘Immigrant New York in the New Millennium.’’ The Newest New Yorkers, 2000. City of New York, 2002. http://www.nyc.gov/html/dcp/html/census/nny.shtml (accessed August 27, 2013).