There’s been a lot in the news lately about the supposedly “soaring” murder rate in London, and how it has supposedly eclipsed that of New York City in recent months. I was initially sceptical as this fact seemed fairly mundane — 50 homicides in 3-and-a-bit months didn’t seem all that unlikely. However, I wanted put my scepticism to the test — so I acquired a couple of datasets from the London Datastore to see if the hyper-sensationalised news articles were justified or not.

How is the data distributed?

Distribution plot of data

With the data being homicide counts per month, it seems probable that the data are generated according to an exponential model (or, at least, something that we can model using a Poisson process). However, for the sake of due diligence, let’s see if the data comes from a normal distribution. We’ll use the Shapiro-Wilks, D’Agostino-Pearson, and Anderson-Darling tests for this.

The Shapiro-Wilks test appears to suggest that we can reject the null hypothesis with a reasonable level of confidence at $p = 0.018$ (the null hypothesis being that the data are distributed normally). This implies that there is a reasonable probability that the data are not from a normal distribution (as we expected).

p = 0.02, therefore reject null hypothesis

The D’Agostino-Pearson test is a hypothesis test for normality, where the null hypothesis is that the data are normally distributed. Applying the test yields a p-value of 0.18 - this is reasonably high, so we can’t rule out the normal distribution completely.

p = 0.18, therefore can't reject null hypothesis

The final test we’ll use is the Anderson-Darling. This is very similar to the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test, but places greater emphasis on the distribution’s tails.

A² = 0.87
critical value at p = 0.15 is 0.56. can reject the null hypothesis.
critical value at p = 0.10 is 0.64. can reject the null hypothesis.
critical value at p = 0.05 is 0.76. can reject the null hypothesis.
critical value at p = 0.03 is 0.89. can't reject the null hypothesis at this significance.

So, we’ve amassed a reasonable body of evidence to suggest that the data is likely to be non-normally distributed - as we expected. In the absence of any better ideas, let’s go ahead and try to fit a Poisson distribution to the data to see if we can discover any useful information.

What are the parameters of this distribution?

Poisson CDF of data

This chart shows the empirical cumulative distribution for the homicide data - this simply fits a step function to the data based on the observed probability of each value. Plotted next to it is the cumulative distribution function for the Poisson distribution that was estimated using maximum likelihood (i.e. $\lambda = \mu$, the mean of the homicide data). With a p-value of $0.42$, it seems very possible that the observed data come from a Poisson distribution.

χ2 = 15.438520075519012, p = 0.4203150760901015

Just how unlikely is this event?

Now that we’ve characterised our distribution as something sensible, let’s see if the current reported figures for homicides are really that unlikely. The headline figure that most news media sources have been touting tends to be along the lines of “$50$ murders in London in the first 3 months of 2018”, or “soaring murder rates in the capital” and so on. Actually (as can probably be expected), these headlines aren’t quite right, and the reality of the situation is a little bit less dramatic - but only a little bit.

Firstly, we need to clarify our terminology. The figures released by the Metropolitan Police are related to homicides - not murders. A homicide is a broader category of offence that can include manslaughter, corporate manslaughter, murder, and so on. So it’s not necessarily all about murders - but of course, we’re splitting hairs here.

Linguistic nit-picking aside, the most interesting insights come from looking at the raw data. According to this article from the BBC, $46$ homicides happened in London between 00:00 on January 1st, 2018 and 23:59 on March 31st,

  1. Most news media have reported on $50$ being the key figure simply because it’s a round number.

46 homicides in 3 months implies an average count of $\frac{46}{3} \approx 15.3$ per month. For there to be 46 homicides in 3 months, this implies 3 consecutive months of $15.3$ homicides (or more). Crunching the numbers gives us a probability of $\approx 0.043$ - or about $1$ in $25$. The probability of this occurring for three consecutive months is extremely low - in fact, this will only happen once in about every $1041$ years.

p(x >= 15.3) = 0.04
probability of x >= 15.3 for 3 consecutive months is 8.004967e-05
which would happen every 1041.02 years on average.

However, this perhaps isn’t the best way of working this out. The model above only takes into account the probability of months with only $15.3$ or more homicides… Whereas in reality a count of $46$ homicides per 3 month period could be composed of one month with $17$ homicides, one with $18$, and one with $11$. Actually, this is exactly what happened in London at the beginning of 2018 — there were $11$ homicides in January, $15$ in February, and $20$ in March; for a total of $46$.

This eventuality wouldn’t be accounted for in the model above, so let’s try a different approach. Let’s count the number of homicides per three month period between 2008 and 2017, and see if it’s possible to find any particular three-month periods with over $46$ homicides.

It turns out that the probability of $46$ homicides in any three-month period is about $1.6\times10^{-3}$ - or about $\frac{1}{625}$. Given that there are twelve possible rolling three-month periods in a year (think about it; Jan/Feb/Mar, Feb/Mar/Apr, …, Nov/Dec/Jan, etc), there is a chance of about $\frac{1}{52}$ that a single three-month period with $\geq 46$ homicides will occur in a given year.

Another way to put this is that this phenomenon is likely to occur once every $52$ or so years. Very uncommon, but not altogether unexpected every once in a while.

Three-month period: p(x >= 46) = 0.0016
Annual: p(x >= 46) = 0.0191
This is likely to happen approx. once every 52.35 years

This is clearly a very uncommon event, but it isn’t outside of the realms of possibility. Statistical anomalies happen all the time and there’s always going to be some city or other throughout the world experiencing this kind of phenomenon.

My bet? We’ll see a regression to the mean over the next month or two and this won’t be mentioned in the media for another $52$ years (or thereabouts!) - after all, it’s probably just statistical noise.