In a year of exciting growth and opportunity, the city of Columbus set a depressing new record: The number of homicides reached an all-time high.
Last year, the city claimed 143 homicide victims, marking the deadliest year on record.
The previous record-holding year was 1991, which saw 139 homicides during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. Columbus surpassed the total number of homicides committed in 2016 –– 106 in all –– by October 2017.
Officials from the Columbus Division of Police and City Hall have felt the impact of this increase across the board.
“We’re talking about human life,” Sgt. David Sicilian, supervisor of Columbus police’s first-shift homicide unit, said at a news conference in December. “We take [the toll] kind of personal. We’re sad to see the family’s response to a victim of a homicide … It’s terrible to investigate. It’s the most horrible, awful thing to tell a family member someone has been killed.”
Almost three decades after 1991, drugs remain a major factor contributing to the homicide rate. Instead of crack cocaine, however, the issue now stems from the opioid epidemic, police said.
Gang violence and access to guns are additional reasons experts attribute to an increased homicide rate. An overwhelming majority of victims in 2017 –– 83 percent –– were shot to death.
Although the total number of homicides is higher than it was in 1991, the murder rate per capita in Columbus was higher, with 21 people killed per 100,000. According to census data, the population in Columbus has grown by about one-third, to 860,090. The 2017 murder rate is 16 people killed per 100,000.
In a time when murder rates in most major cities are on the decline, Columbus bucks the trend.
A study by the Brennan Center for Justice published in September last year gathered crime statistics from the 30 largest U.S. cities. Statistics showed an overall decrease in crime, violent crime and murder in 2017.
Compared to 2016, the study projected the 2017 crime rate to decline 1.8 percent, violent crime to be about the same, and murder rate to drop 2.5 percent.
“These findings directly undercut any claim that the nation is experiencing a crime wave,” the study stated.
Despite an overall projected decline, nine cities, including Columbus, showed an increase in the number of murders.
Since the early 1990s, Columbus experienced a gradual decline until 2016, when the rate began to spike again, according to the study.
Of all homicide victims last year, 111 were black. All but 10 of the victims were male, and the median age of victims was 29 years old, according to Columbus Police.
Certain neighborhoods in the city saw higher concentrations of violence last year. Of the 143 murders last year, 48 took place in the Hilltop and Linden neighborhoods, a couple of miles west of downtown and northeast of downtown, respectively.
There were four homicides in the University District. There were two Ohio State students among last year’s homicide victims.
The city’s first homicide victim of 2017 was Tarak Andrew Underiner, a third-year in Spanish and marketing, and treasurer for Buckeyes for Concealed Carry.
On Jan. 5, 2017, police officers were called to the scene of a reported shooting inside a residence on E. Northwood Avenue at approximately 12:30 a.m. Underiner was found unresponsive and pronounced dead on the scene at 12:41 a.m.
In the early-morning hours of Sept. 16, 2017, Heather Campbell, a fourth-year in psychology, was shot and killed by her boyfriend in their off-campus apartment.
Her death was the 94th homicide in Columbus last year.
Two other current Ohio State students were murdered in 2017, although their deaths did not affect the Columbus homicide rate because their bodies were found outside of city limits.
Reagan Tokes, a fourth-year in psychology, was walking home from her shift at Bodega in the Short North Feb. 8, 2017, when she was abducted, raped and murdered. Her body was dumped at Scioto Grove Metro Park in Grove City, just south of Columbus.
Quvonta Ratliff, a first-year in exploration at Ohio State Mansfield, was found dead Nov. 12, 2017, in a vehicle on Cleveland’s east side. He was shot in the head.
At the December news conference after the city broke the 1991 record, Sicilian urged the community to not see the homicides simply as a number, but to remember that each victim was a person with a family. Moreover, Sicilian pleaded with the community for its help and support.
“Help us,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can.”
Anyone with information about a homicide can call Columbus homicide investigators at 614-645-4730 or remain anonymous by calling Central Ohio Crime Stoppers at 614-461-TIPS (8477).