US crime rate up, ending decade of decline

Violent crime spike renews debate over strategy: better technology or more police?

The great crime drop of the booming '90s has finally bottomed out.

For the first time in a decade, the FBI is reporting the number of thefts, assaults, murders, and rapes is up across the United States in all regions of the country except the Northeast. Homicides, which criminologists consider the most reliable gauge of the nation's safety, were up 3.1 percent.

The increase brings to a close a decade of remarkable declines in illicit activity, which helped revitalize the nation's urban areas and brought a renewed a sense of civility and security for millions of Americans.

Even with this increase, crime rates remain some of the lowest in a generation. In New York, that's meant fewer barred windows and far more flower boxes on the city's old brownstones. And in leafy suburban Connecticut, doors firmly locked in the 1980s are now often left open, so neighbors or kids could drop by.

While criminologists warn this current up tick is a reason to reinvigorate the nation's crime-fighting efforts, they also note the increase was expected.

In part, this is because of the economic slowdown, an increase in the number of teens reaching their anticipated peak crime-committing years, and a wave of ex-drug dealers and gang members arrested in the 1980s returning to the streets after time in prison.

But there's another factor. After dropping so low, there was no where else for the crime rate to go. "I call it the criminal justice limbo stick," says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "There's only so low it can go. This just means we have to redouble our efforts."

Cuts in prevention programs

Yet that in itself could be a challenge. With huge budget deficits looming at the local, state, and federal levels, crime-fighting and –prevention programs like after-school activities have already been cut.

And many more are on the block for next year. In Massachusetts, the state is proposing cuts of $10 million from after-school and prevention programs, almost half of them affecting "at-risk" kids.

Shifts on federal level

On the federal level, the Bush administration is proposing to reduce by 80 percent the Community Oriented Policing Services program (COPS) that helped put 115,000 new police on the beat since 1994. At the same time, the FBI's traditional role is shifting from taking on gangs, mobsters, and kidnappers to focus more on the threat of terrorism.

The combination of those factors, along with the hike in the crime rate, is already prompting demands on Capitol Hill to restore some crime-fighting funds .

"We can fight violent crime and wage the war on terror at the same time, but the resources need to be there," said Senator Joseph Biden (D) Delaware in a statement. "So far, this administration has failed to provide them."

Resource allocation

The administration defends the cuts in the COPS program, contending the money would be more effectively spent on better technology and school-safety programs than on putting more police on the streets.

But that argument could ring hollow in places like Boston, which, according to the FBI report released Monday, saw the largest spike in the murder rate of any large city – up 67 percent from last year.

Effective policing has had an impact in the past.

The winding streets and housing projects of the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, for instance, rang with gunfire as the homicide rate, particularly among youth, soared during the 1980s and early 1990s. But due to a concerted effort by police and local religious leaders, the homicide rate had been cut in half by 1996 – especially among youth.

Professor Fox contends the city's success may have led to a kind of complacency, noting the anti-gang unit that was so successful is a "shadow of its former self." Still, the crime rate is still quite low for the city, and "undoubtedly a reflection of the success they had during the '90s in getting the message to the gangs that they weren't going to take the violence," says Alfred Blumstein, a professor at the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Homicides down in New York

In New York, the nation's largest city, the homicide rate was down 3.6 percent, from 319 to 309 murders. Compare that to New Orleans, a city a fraction of New York's size that dropped from 673 murders in 2000 to 649 in 2001.

Given its population of 8 million people, New York "has an astonishingly low homicide rate," says Professor Blumstein.

But that would not be the case had the death toll from the Sept. 11th attacks been figured into the crime statistics. According to an analysis done by Gov. George Pataki's office, had the 2,823 people killed at the World Trade Center been included, the state's homicide rate would have jumped 312 percent. The city's rate would have spiraled even higher.

The Sept. 11 effect on crime

In Washington, the other city most directly effected by the terrorist attacks, the homicide rate was down as well by 3.3 percent. While no studies have been done to correlate the impact of the attacks on the crime rate, several theories have arisen. One postulates that the terrorists created a sense of community that discouraged crime. Another is that they simply limited the opportunities for criminals to strike.

"Immediately after the attacks there were a lot fewer people on the streets and in restaurants, so consequently you don't have as many people at risk," says Margaret Zahn, a criminologist North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. "That changed the opportunity structure for crime .... and more people were vigilant."

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