55 years of Ohio homicides scrutinized by researchers

Criminologists, sociologists and historians have long wondered why homicide rates rise and fall.
MCT Regional News
Jan 20, 2014

Randolph Roth spends his days digging through public records, perusing police case files and scanning ribbons of microfilm as he pieces together the demise of yet another victim.

With each completed summary, the Ohio State University professor of history and sociology inches closer to his goal: recording enough details about enough homicides to shed light on 55 years worth of Ohio slayings.

Criminologists, sociologists and historians have long wondered why homicide rates rise and fall. Some cite the changing markets for illegal drugs. Others fault the economy or a culture that glorifies violence.

Roth, author of the book American Homicide, theorizes that homicides are linked to a broader sense of how unified a community or nation might be and how connected its citizens feel. When such feelings are strong, he says, the homicide rate falls. When citizens feel divided, undervalued or isolated, the rate rises.

To substantiate any such theories, researchers need reliable data. According to Roth and Wendy Regoeczi, the director of Cleveland State University’s Criminology Research Center, even serious crimes such as homicide are at risk of being misreported or not reported at all.

“There’s a tremendous amount of research on homicide,” said Regoeczi, who is working with Roth to build a database tracking Ohio homicides back to the 1950s.

But, although homicide statistics tend to be more reliable than those for other crimes, Roth and Regoeczi are finding plenty of problems, she said.

Their current work is the pilot program for the National Homicide Data Improvement Project, which aims to collect accurate information so that those who study crime and set public policy have more reliable numbers to work with.

Before moving on to other states, the research team is chronicling homicides that occurred between 1959 and 2010 in 22 Ohio counties.

That should provide a big enough sample to draw valid statewide conclusions, Roth said.

While Roth’s graduate students collect data from such places as the Ohio Historical Society, he spends sometimes 10 hours a day pulling case files at the Columbus Division of Police headquarters, the Cincinnati Police Department, and sheriffs’ and coroners’ offices throughout Ohio.

He cross-checks the law-enforcement records with those of health departments and collects newspaper accounts of deaths. He also speaks to local historians — in some places, he said, the number of homicides the researchers have identified is 30 percent higher than the official law-enforcement count.

Some agencies, Roth said, had reported no killings to the FBI for years, probably because reporting wasn’t mandatory and the reports take time and money.

Roth collects as many details as he can about each victim, the circumstances of the killing, and any information that brings the era in which it occurred to life. “You build a narrative,” he said.

He logs the details into a sprawling database that he hopes will paint a grim but more-thorough picture of Ohio’s homicidal history. Throughout are signs of the times: people being killed during organized-labor disputes, street riots and times of racial unrest.

Cmdr. Kelly Weiner of the Columbus police Crimes Against Persons Bureau said the division has worked with OSU researchers before, knowing that the university is better equipped to conduct research on such a large scale.

“Hopefully we’ll get some valuable data that will help us to prevent future homicides,” Weiner said. “To have someone flesh out that data throughout Ohio, I think that would be beneficial for all Ohioans.”

Regoeczi, with the help of a graduate student, is collecting the data for homicides in Cuyahoga County. That is a tall order: Cleveland recorded 333 in 1972 alone.

“I could use an army, quite frankly,” she said.

Cleveland police have given her access to old files and handwritten homicide log books that date to 1957.

The work is time-consuming, partly because Regoeczi finds so many of the cases riveting.

“It’s hard not to get caught up in the details,” she said. “You get so much better of a sense of how these events unfold and what’s going on behind them.”

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By Theodore Decker - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)

©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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