At a Milwaukee forum entitled "The Second Amendment and the Black Community," two high-profile African Americans with opposing views on firearms spoke of an earlier time they vividly recall as a safer time.
Longtime community activist and radio voice Earl Ingram Jr., a critic of concealed carry laws, said his first question to classrooms of city students is always: "How many of you know someone who’s been shot?"
"I’ll tell you, 60 to 70 percent and maybe higher will raise their hand," Ingram told an audience at the Community Brainstorming Conference breakfast meeting on June 22, 2013. "And then I think about that question being asked to my generation. If one person raised their hand we would all look at them in disbelief."
Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., who urges citizens to arm themselves to ward off harm, offered his own memories.
"When I was growing up as a kid in the city of Milwaukee, if we averaged 4 homicides a year in the entire city that was a record number," said Clarke, 56. "So a lot obviously has gone on since then."
A good chunk of the sheriff’s childhood overlapped with the 20-year run of Police Chief Harold Breier as Milwaukee’s top cop. Breier called Milwaukee "the safest city in the nation" just months before retiring in 1984.
Clarke went to work in Breier’s MPD as a patrolman in 1978 at the age of 21, and later worked his way up to homicide detective and various command staff positions. He was appointed sheriff in 2002 and has been re-elected since.
Is Clarke right that homicides were a rarity when he was growing up?
We took a walk back in time through Milwaukee Police crime stats and news stories to get an answer. Clarke declined to discuss his remarks.
One of the first news stories we found from the era said that Milwaukee’s 1960 murder rate per capita was lowest of any major city. At the time, Milwaukee was the nation’s 11-largest city (population 741,324).
But Clarke’s memory for the frequency of homicides was fuzzy. He recalled "if we averaged 4 homicides a year in the entire city that was a record number."
Milwaukee’s lowest annual homicide total in Clarke’s childhood was 12 in 1956, the year he was born.
Homicides tallied in the 20s in most of his first 10 years, and then picked up their pace, totaling 36, 46 and 51 before Clarke’s teen years began.
And if you include his early teenage years as part of his time as a "kid," the count had risen sharply to 75 in 1973, when Clarke was 17.
So, instead of coming in at record-setting lows, as Clarke recalled, homicide was doubling or tripling during his youth.
As a point of reference, the figure of 75 was higher than the homicide total in both 2008 and 2009. At the same time, that figure looks low when compared with the early 1990s, when homicides hit 160 as crack cocaine and related violence took hold.
The sheriff, we found, would have better made his point about changes in safety by citing per-capita figures and national rankings.
PolitiFact Wisconsin ran those numbers in March 2013 when analyzing a dispute over homicide figures used by Clarke and Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn.
The picture is much-changed compared with 1960, when that study put the city’s homicide ranking as lowest among the largest cities.
For starters, the city’s population is now 598,916, a number that dropped it to the 30th-largest U.S. city. And nationally in 2011, Milwaukee’s homicide rate was fifth highestin the country among cities of 500,000 to 999,000 people. And it was 18th-highest of 73 cities, when cities of 250,000 or more were included.
Just looking at Milwaukee over time, the city’s homicide rate in 1960 was eight times lower than the 2010 rate, we found.
Speaking about changes in the crime picture over time, Clarke said, "When I was growing up as a kid in the city of Milwaukee, if we averaged 4 homicides a year in the entire city that was a record number."
The sheriff’s memory misfired. In reality, homicides ranged from 12 to 75 during Clarke’s pre-adult years, accelerating at a steady clip.
We rate his claim False.