By MARGERY A. BECK
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - In a year that has seen cities across the country reporting a spike in violent crimes and homicides, Nebraska’s capital city of Lincoln finds itself in the rare position of experiencing no homicides so far this year.
If that holds through the end of December, it will be Lincoln’s first homicide-free year since 1991.
“Our random shootings ... are few and far between for us,” said Lincoln Police Chief Jim Peschong, who announced last week his plan to retire early next year. He’s hoping to end his 40-year police career on the Lincoln force on a high note.
“I’m hopeful, but I know that we’ve got another just under 50 days left yet in the year,” he said.
Only 50 miles northeast, Nebraska’s largest city of Omaha has seen a jump in homicides, with 40 so far this year, compared to 33 in all of 2014. Other cities across the country, from Baltimore and Chicago to Kansas City and Milwaukee, have seen significant increases in homicides since last year.
Asked what could explain the lack of homicides in Lincoln this year, former longtime police chief-turned Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady deadpanned, “Not very many people have been shot.”
That’s only partly in jest. Most cities’ homicide rates are directly tied to how many shootings occur, Casady said.
“We have had seven people shot in Lincoln this year,” he said. “That’s a real small number of shootings.”
By comparison, Casady said, Philadelphia had seen 1,035 people shot by early November, with 195 of those resulting in fatalities. Taking into account Philadelphia’s population of 1.6 million, “our shooting rate is 17 times smaller than Philadelphia’s,” Casady said.
But most people compare Lincoln’s violent crime rate to Omaha’s, he said.
“Despite our population disparity, we have an awful lot in common,” Casady said. “We have the same underlying economy; we have similar demographics, similar education level; we drink the same water.”
But Omaha has “a lot more concentrated disadvantaged,” he said.
Peschong credits, in part, a police effort in the early 1990s to deter Kansas City and Omaha gangs from establishing roots in Lincoln, and including the public and community leaders in on that plan.
“We said, ‘We’re going to resist this, and we’re not going to give up one block of any neighborhood to the gangs,’” Peschong recalled. “We said, ‘You are apt to see the police make arrests or issue citations for some petty things, that normally we wouldn’t do.’ But it was our intent to try to keep gangs from getting a foothold in the community. Because we thought once they start getting a foothold, it’s pretty tough to ever get it out.”
Lincoln’s status as a college town, its strong economy and low unemployment rate help contribute to historically low homicide rates, said Ryan Spohn, director of the Nebraska Center for Justice Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Lincoln has averaged about five homicides a year over the past 25 years.
“Modern medicine helps as well,” Spohn said. “Often there isn’t a very big difference between a serious aggravated assault and a homicide, other than blind luck or proximity to health care.”