Is Davao City still the murder capital of the Philippines? Gotham and the Myth

This three-part article expands my Facebook Note, The Problem with PNP’s Crime Index. In this last part of the series, we explore the myth behind Davao City’s crime record using data and crime history. We try to separate facts from the spin.

Is Davao City the safest city in the Philippines?

All eyes were in Davao City and presidential candidate Mayor Rodrigo Duterte when the Philippine National Police (PNP) released its figures on index crimes for the 15 major cities in the Philippines. It has been the narrative that Duterte has had a tough stance on peace and order, even going as far as threatening to kill criminals if needed.

Recently, this claim has been bolstered through the crime and safety indices, ranking Davao as the “fourth safest city in the world” in June 2015 according to Numbeo, an online database that gathers information on cost of living and perceived peace and order situation of cities.

At present, the website reported a crime index of 26.47 and a safety index of 73.53. It rated Davao “low” across its crime rate measures and “high” in its safety measures.

As the election season started to ramp up, questions naturally erupted from critics and political opponents. In her Inquirer column, UP Economics Professor Solita Monsod argued that the Numbeo figures are meaningless because it only contains perceived data, not actual crime data. A second wave of attacks questioning Duterte’s record came from members of the Liberal Party.

Caloocan Representative Edgar Erice, pointing out PNP crime data in 2014, questioned Duterte’s peace and order record by pointing out that Davao had the fourth highest crime volume at 18,119 cases in a year. Finally, presidential candidate Manual Roxas II chimed in, calling Davao’s safety record a “myth.”

The Davao City Police Office (DCPO), through their Facebook Page, quickly debunked Roxas’s claim, citing that the crime volume was taken out of context. Of the more than 18 thousand cases, 6,548 cases (36 percent) are index crimes while 11,571 cases are non-index crimes. They clarified that non-index crimes are police-initiated operations, such as drug possessions or violations of city ordinances.

So, who is telling the truth? In the last part of this three-part article, we attempt to make sense what the “facts” are really telling us, how to use additional data and information, and how the general public can be more critical with the information available to them.

Politicizing Data: Separating Fact from Spin

In the age of the internet and social media, the public has been exposed to so much information. During the campaign trail, candidates try to put out as many valuable statistics to make themselves sound legitimate or to hurt their rival’s reputation.

Pundits have thrown Grace Poe-Llamanzares with her poor “experience” record, Jejomar Binay with the value of government coffers stolen from Makati, Duterte the number of extra-judicial killings, and now downplaying his peace and order record, Roxas with high death counts from Supertyphoon Haiyan, and Miriam Defensor-Santiago with her health record.

Used in a balanced and fair way, the numbers do shed some light in determining whom to vote for. But used with little understanding, the data is meaningless. Now, let us try to separate facts from the spin concerning Davao City’s crime records.

First, Monsod is right to warn the public to take the Numbeo figures with a grain of salt. User-based online statistics like Numbeo’s can be subject to manipulation, resulting in skewed and biased data.

Given that Duterte commands a fervent legion of supporters in the internet compared to any other presidential candidate, the likelihood the statistics can be tampered is high. The quality of actual observable data still far exceeds any perceived user-based data.

Second, calling a city “unsafe” or “dangerous” based on a relative comparison between cities’ total crime volume is meaningless as well. In the first partof this series, we have shown that city rankings based on index crime is almost identical as the rankings for population.

Controlling for population size, we have a different picture of the rankings. Based on index crime rate per year, Davao ranked 11th out of 15 cities overall with an average yearly crime rate of 385.66 per 100,000 people (Baguio ranked first overall with 1,260.83 per 100,000). To recall, Davao ranked:

  • 4th in murder (10.56 per 100,000); Cebu City ranked first with 14.13 murders per 100,000
  • 12th in homicide (2.51 per 100,000); Baguio ranked first with 6.14 homicides per 100,000
  • 13th in physical injury (94.95 per 100,000); Baguio ranked first with 447.78 injuries per 100,000
  • 12th in robbery (71.65 per 100,000); Manila ranked first with 164.67 robberies per 100,000
  • 12th in theft (201.31 per 100,000); Baguio ranked first with 632.98 thefts per 100,000
  • 15th in carnapping (4.68 per 100,000); Angeles ranked first with 42.04 car thefts per 100,000

In the second part of this series, we introduced various ranking methods to demonstrate how weighing in criteria differently can alter or change the rankings.

Using many different types of ranking methodologies, it consistently ranked at the Bottom 15, ranking from 12th to 15th. However, we also cautioned that ranking data gives us an incomplete picture of a city’s law enforcement effectiveness, given how each city possesses different economic and social factors.

The best measure is to compare the city with itself, or how it has improved in reducing crime over time.

We were able to retrieve some data on crime volume (the sum of index and non-index crimes) from a report published by the People’s Journal. In this article, the PNP reported ten cities based on their crime volume from January to October 2014 and January to October 2015. Eight out of the ten cities were comparable over both periods.

The figure on the left plots crime volume in both years.

Davao City had the ‘second’ largest total crime volume. But controlling for population, the city has a total crime rate of 958.69 per 100,000 and 702.15 per 100,000 in 2015. Compared to the eight cities on the list, its crime rate in both periods is low. The figure on the right plots the total crime rate.

However, we are most concerned about the reductions in crime for Davao as a way to gauge the city’s law enforcement effectiveness. From 2014 to 2015, Davao’s crime volume and crime rate decreased by 25.03 percent and 26.76 percent, respectively.

Apart from Davao, all the Mindanao cities — Cagayan de Oro, Zamboanga, and General Santos — enjoyed reductions in crime. Baguio City’s crime volume increased by a quarter, largely attributed to an increase in non-index crimes.

Based on the PNP’s crime data, the cities with the largest increase in crime volume are all Visayas cities: Mandaue (96.40%), Cebu (100.81%), and Iloilo (132.84%).

To say that Davao is a dangerous city is nothing more but a misunderstanding of the data. But is Davao City the safest city? Based on its low crime rate across cities and its reduction in crime volume from 2014 to 2015, it is definitely safe.

The data suggests that its law enforcement agencies are functioning. However, the available data we have cannot weigh in whether Davao is the “safest.”

The Gotham that is Davao

However, the headline story that media outlets has been bannering is Davao’s murder record. From 2010 to 2015, there were a total of 1,032 recorded murders, the highest in all 15 cities. Its average yearly murder rate is fourth in rank. And despite enjoying a decline in overall crime from 2014 to 2015, murder and homicide cases continue to increase.

Senior Superintendent Antonio Rivera of the Davao City Police Regional Police Office showed that murders in Davao have increased by 4.61 percent from 347 cases in the first half of 2014 to 363 cases in 2015 of the same period. On the other hand, homicides increased even more by 44.83 percent from 174 cases in 2014 to 252 cases in 2015.

To many living in Davao City, being tagged as the country’s “murder capital” is nothing new. But to those who do not know the city’s history, it does bring back many painful memories.

Prior to Duterte assuming as mayor in 1988, Davao was the undisputed murder capital of the Philippines. In an article written for the Chicago Tribune, the city was described as a “killing field.” It has been said that two to three people were found dead every day, either as a consequence of either communist insurgents or security forces.

With a population of around 750 thousand at that time, the average murder rate would be 122 murders per 100,000. In fact, its murder rate before is even higher than the murder rates of all the 15 cities combined. Compare that to Davao’s current record of 10.56 per 100,000, it is clear that Davao is no longer the murder capital of the Philippines.

How Davao overturned its violent past came at a hefty price — Filipino vigilantism. In 1987, a civilian armed group called Alsa Masa (Arise, Masses) ruled over the streets of Davao in an effort to ward off Communist rebels. In a report by the New York Times, Alsa Masa members set up checkpoints in every street with machetes and pistols. They issued identity cards. They even solicited donations and organized fundraisers, such as benefit dances.

It would be a myth to suggest that Duterte invented vigilantism in Davao. The national government did. It began with President Ferdinand Marcos, at the height of communist insurgency, through the Civilian Home Defense Forces. The government supplied weapons to member civilians. When President Corazon Aquino took power, she endorsed the concept of anti-Communist vigilante groups, albeit unarmed.

In Davao, its was Lt. Col. Franco Calida, former commander of the Davao City Metropolitan Command, who channelled weapons to the Alsa Masathrough the Civil Home Defense Forces. Dubbed as Davao’s godfather, Calida’s theory of law enforcement was simple: peace and order in Davao was an “armed struggle.”

Years have passed. The Alsa Masa has been disbanded. Now mayor of Hagonoy in Davao del Sur, Calida floated the idea of reviving Alsa Masa, following attacks from the New People’s Army (NPA) in the Bansalan and Matanao towns. With Duterte’s pronouncements of killing criminals, both Davao’sGodfather and the Punisher share a common philosophy of civilian action. Calida’s crusade was against Communist rebels, Duterte with drug lords and criminals.

Despite their shared philosophies on law enforcement, Duterte does not endorse bringing back Alsa Masa.

The Curious Case of Murder

Calida described Davao as an “urban laboratory for insurgents.” Interestingly, population density might have something to do with it.

With a population of 1.5 million people in 2010, Davao is the third most populous city. But because it amasses a land area of 2,444 square kilometres, the city has one of the lowest population densities at 666 people per square kilometre. Compare that to Manila’s population density of 43,809 people per square kilometre, 66 times more than Davao’s.

The figure below provides the population densities of the 15 major cities the PNP listed.

Davao is a perfect place for rebel insurgency because the city has large patches of land that is sparsely populated. Considering that most of the city’s population is concentrated at the coast, this environment would allow rebel groups to go up the city’s interior and hide. The same logic may follow for suspected murderers who can hide in the city’s least populous areas.

In other words, cities with low population densities tend to have high murder rates while very dense cities like Manila or Quezon City have low murder rates. The data seem to suggest this pattern. The left panel below shows the correlations between murder rate and population density. The colours represent the island group the city belongs to while the size of the bubbles represent the city’s population.

s it turns out, Davao is in good company in terms of high murder rates and low population densities. With the exception of Cebu, all of the cities with high murder rates and low population densities are also cities in Mindanao. It is the opposite case for homicides. Cities with large population densities are likely to have higher homicide rates; Manila and Quezon City top the list in homicide rates.

In principle, murder and homicide are both violent and heinous crimes, but they correlate differently for cities with different population densities. At first blush, the nature of both crimes are somewhat different. Homicides can be unintentional and justifiable; murders are pre-mediated and unjustifiable.

While we can speculate how a city’s density influences criminal behaviour, this question is worth further investigating. Are murderers with the intention to kill more likely to hide in less dense cities?

However, both data and historical accounts do suggest that merely tagging Davao City as the country’s murder capital based on a ranking is irresponsible. We have to put the data into the proper context in order for it to have meaning.

This is why both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the American Society of Criminology discourage and oppose ranking crime data. Whether we agree or disagree with Duterte’s philosophy of governance, Davao has gone a long way from being the country’s killing field to an emerging metropolitan city in the Philippines.

Data as a Storyteller

In this three-part series, we sought to answer three fundamental questions about the use of criminal data. In Part One, we began with a simple question: does total index crime have enough basis to call a country dangerous or safe? Part Two raised the issue whether ranking data has any meaningful sense.

In the last part, we went more in depth and asked ourselves how can other variables like reductions in crime volume, population density, and city history can deepen our understanding why murders are high in some cities, but not in others.

Three cities — Quezon City, Baguio, and Davao City — provided us with valuable cases how the data can clarify many unfounded claims, especially when the right questions are asked. We found out that neither Quezon nor Baguio can claim to be the country’s most dangerous city. Davao City today is no longer the bedlam for violent crime in the streets.

Contrary to popular belief, statistical information is not an indecipherable hieroglyph reserved for the few. It does require some thinking, but in a world where the truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction, a little bit of deliberate thinking can go a long way.

In this election season, an understanding how to read data and spot the many ways how they are being spun are especially helpful in providing us voters a more balanced way of evaluating our candidates and holding accountable those who try to twist the data to serve their own purposes at the expense of others.

When used in the pursuit of finding the truth, regardless whether it confirms or refutes our beliefs, the data can serve as a powerful storyteller in this fast-moving information and digital age.