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FBI data says Minnesota’s violent crime is down. So why is murder up?

Minnesota is one of the safest states in the country -- except when it comes to killing each other.

Minnesota is one of the safest states in the country -- except when it comes to killing each other. Aaron Lavinsky, Star Tribune

When you rank all 50 states from most to least dangerous, Minnesota is sitting pretty in the bottom 10.

Its violent crime rate in 2017 was 238 per 100,000 people -- lower than our neighbor to the south, Iowa, which sits at 293 per 100,000, and a far sight better than Wisconsin, at 320 per 100,000.

Our poverty and imprisonment rates are even worthy of bragging rights; they rank fourth and fifth lowest in the country.

But there is one metric in which Minnesota doesn’t shine quite as bright, and that’s murder. For our relative lack of violent crime, we’re only 19th-lowest when it comes to homicide. (At the top of the list is California, with 1,830 murders in 2017.)

According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, there were 119 murders reported in 2017. That’s about a 16 percent jump over the previous year’s total of 100. Minnesota’s homicide rate has been bouncing up and down -- somewhere between 80 and 130 for the past five years. 

Dallas Drake, co-founder of the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis, has seen a lot of murder stats over the years. The center is trying to eliminate homicide entirely by looking for patterns in data -- root causes and possible scenarios to avoid.

Some of the fluctuations in Minnesota’s rate, he says, may just be normal variability. Any number of things can determine whether your average aggravated assault or robbery becomes a homicide, he says -- things like whether those involved were drinking, whether paramedics arrived in time, whether anyone trusted law enforcement enough to call the police, or whether the weapon is a knife, gun, or fists.

All explain why Minnesota’s homicide rate jumps around, guided by countless variables that don’t appear in the FBI’s data.

“We haven’t had really big swings in the data since the 1990s,” when the nation’s murder rates began to plunge from their fever pitch in the mid- to late ’80s.

But when the state's homicide rate really fluctuates, it isn’t usually because of anything in particular to Minnesota. Homicides roughly follow national trends, which roughly follow international trends. When we experience seemingly random spikes of murder, we usually experience it as a planet.

Drake wishes he could tell you why.

“Unfortunately, that’s part of what criminologists don’t understand.”