New Crime Data Has Experts Concerned

Violent crime is trending upward in many cities around the country. Nationally, the FBI says robbery was up 9 percent and murder up 1 percent in the first half of 2006. But the trend is uneven: Some cities are up, and others are down. That volatility has criminologists worried.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It's been a strange couple of years for criminologists. In some cities, crime went up, and others down. And still others, crime is gone up and down. Overall, the police are worried. The last time there was this kind of volatility, it was right before the big crime wave of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN: For two decades, crime skyrocketed and then steadily declined. The country moved together in a nice, succinct pattern, and crime graphs were all very tidy. One box, a big mountain in the middle. Then two years ago, the charts got messy. They look more like a connect the dots game than graphs.

Mr. JIM LYNCH (John Jay College of Criminal Justice): It's very bizarre.

SULLIVAN: Jim Lynch is a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He says historically, cities in flux mean something big is coming.

Mr. LYNCH: Well, we're into the middling years. Things are sort of unstable and waiting.

SULLIVAN: It sounds like you're saying we're all just waiting for the other shoe to drop?

Mr. LYNCH: Well, you can be sure that there will be a shoe.

SULLIVAN: But just what the shoe will look like or how big it will be no one can say for sure. A hint came last week when the FBI released preliminary crime numbers for the first half of 2006. For the second year in a row, overall violent crime rose. Not everywhere, but in enough places to tip the scale. Murder was up nationally one and a half percent. Robbery increased nine percent.

Chief CHARLES RAMSEY (Washington, D.C., Police Department): It certainly doesn't look good with what we're starting to see in cities across America.

SULLIVAN: Charles Ramsey is chief of police in Washington D.C. He called a crime emergency this summer and flooded the streets with 600 extra officers working overtime when 13 people were murdered in 15 days.

Chief RAMSEY: Homicide, robberies, sexual assaults, juvenile crime. It's a disturbing trend because it's happening in so many cities. We saw the same thing the first half of the year, but we were very aggressive about going after it to try to reverse it.

SULLIVAN: A number of criminologists gathered in New York recently to figure out what might be going on. Alfred Blumstein from Carnegie Melon University, says you don't have to look much farther than the last crime wave that started in the mid-‘80s.

Professor ALFRED BLUMSTEIN (Carnegie Melon University): And the rise was attributable entirely to violence by young people with handguns.

SULLIVAN: Here's what happened, according to Blumstein and many others. Crime started out pretty high in the late ‘70s and then dropped. This was likely the result of baby boomers calming age. Then, just as things were looking nice and peaceful, came crack, and with it, open street warfare.

As police stepped in to arrest dealers in the late ‘80s, younger dealers in their teens moved in to fill the void, and that actually made things worse.

Professor BLUMSTEIN: Because the young people were a heck of a lot more dangerous with the guns they were carrying than the people who they replaced. Young people just don't have that restraint that their older predecessors had.

SULLIVAN: Blumstein says the crack market stabilized years ago, but the handguns are still a problem.

Professor BLUMSTEIN: The concern that we have now is that we're seeing violence in a number of cities where it's predominantly young people with handguns shooting other young people.

SULLIVAN: A growing number of experts believe there may also be pockets of poverty, even deeper than there were in the early 1990s, combined with fewer job opportunities. And there's something else, returning prisoners.

Chief JERRY DYER (Fresno Police Department): Prisoner reentry has been a thorn in law enforcement side and the side of the community for many years.

SULLIVAN: Chief Jerry Dyer heads the Fresno, California, Police Department. He says he's been able to keep crime down in his city by keeping an eye on inmates as they come home.

Chief DYER: Individuals that are getting out of prison that are going back into their same neighborhoods. Not only are they committing crimes, but they're recruiting others to commit crimes with them. They're the ones that are recruiting youngsters into gangs.

SULLIVAN: Many of those people were caught up in the crack wars of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Most received sentences of 15 to 20 years. You can do that math. The Justice Department says two-thirds of released inmates return to prison within three years for committing new crimes.

That's been a problem in Providence, Rhode Island, says Dean Esserman, the police chief there. At the same time, he says federal money has been cut and the number of police officers on the street is shrinking.

Chief DEAN ESSERMAN (Providence Police Department): There are not more than a handful of police departments in America today that have as many police officers on duty as they did on September 11th. But since September 11th, they are being asked to do something they never were asked to do before, which is to get involved in homeland defense.

SULLIVAN: Police officials like Dean Esserman are eager to see how the second half of 2006 shaped up. The FBI is expected to release that report in the spring.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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Violent Crime Surge Hints at Troubling Trend

Above, the Times Square police office in New York City.

A view of the Times Square police office in New York City. Across the United States, in big cities and small, violent crime rose 3.7 percent between January and June, compared to the first six months of 2005. Twenty-eight more people were murdered during that period 2006 in New York City, for example, while the college town Norman, Okla., saw its total number of homicides jump from zero to three. Spencer Platt/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Violent Crime Chart
Scott Stroud/NPR

Violent Crime by Region

Northeast

Overall: +2.9 percent

Murder: +0.5 percent

Forcible Rape: -2.5 percent

Robbery: +5.8 percent

Aggravated Assault: +1.7 percent

 

Midwest

Overall: +3.9 percent

Murder: -2 percent

Forcible Rape: +1 percent

Robbery: +10.4 percent

Aggravated Assault: + 1.1 percent

 

South

Overall: +3.3 percent

Murder: +3.3 percent

Forcible Rape: +1.1 percent

Robbery: +8 percent

Aggravated Assault: +1.5 percent

 

West

Overall: +4.7 percent

Murder: +1.6 percent

Forcible Rape: -1 percent

Robbery: +14.6 percent

Aggravated Assault: +0.6 percent

 

Nationwide

Overall: +3.7 percent

Homicide: +1.4 percent

Forcible Rape: -less than 1/10th of 1 percent

Robbery: +9.7 percent

Aggravated Assault: +1.2 percent

 

Source: FBI Semiannual Uniform Crime Report

Violent crime rose in cities and towns across the country in the first half of 2006, according to preliminary data from the FBI. The findings signal that a long period of declining crime in the United States is not just at an end, it's heading in the other direction.

Violent crime rose in cities and towns across the country in the first half of 2006, according to preliminary data from the FBI.

The surge in violent crime is an ominous sign for police officers and criminologists who were hoping last year's increase was just a blip.

"Robbery has jumped up by over 9 percent, and murder has jumped up by 1.5 percent," says Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University who has been tracking crime numbers for 30 years.

The FBI report, which compiled numbers from almost 12,000 police departments, found violent crime was up almost 4 percent from 2005 — a year which already saw an increase from the year before. Blumstein finds the robbery numbers especially troubling, because they've always served as a warning of what's to come.

"There's clearly a growing number of people who have no future in our economy," Blumstein says. "There are basically three modes of earning income: One is to have a job, the other is welfare. The third is theft."

The last time robbery jumped so dramatically was in the early 1990s, at the height of crack-cocaine use. Criminologists believe drug addiction was behind most of the robberies then. But the crack markets stabilized in the 10 years since, and so has drug use in general.

Blumstein says the problem now is likely the historic numbers of inmates returning home from prison with no job prospects or skills. There's also been a proliferation of handguns in recent years, as well as a growing rise of retaliatory killings in some cities.

Many experts also say that many police departments no longer have the resources to be engaged in community policing. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, police department crime-fighting funds were cut back nationwide. Much of that money went to the Department of Homeland Security, which gave out much smaller grants — and only for terrorism-related initiatives. The federal budget for crime fighting is now a little more than one-third of what it was 10 years ago.

"Regardless of why crime has gone up, I can tell you what the solution is going to be. It's to pay more attention to the problem and devote more resources to addressing it," says Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The group represents thousands of police departments across the country.

The FBI's report did have some positive numbers: Property crime, like burglary and auto theft, dropped 2.6 percent. The numbers for the second half of 2006 will be released next spring.

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