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Ups and downs in urban crime

Murder rates for 2004 decline in many cities, but gang violence leads to some exceptions.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Sara B. MillerStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 2005


On New Year's Eve, not one murder was committed in the city of Chicago. It was a fitting finish to a year that, by any measure, saw serious inroads against violent crime.

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Not that homicides and other crimes aren't still a problem: In 2004, Chicago had 448 murders and thousands of assaults.

But its homicide rate declined by 25 percent, with 151 fewer murders than in 2003, diminishing an unwelcome reputation as America's murder capital. The city also saw about 1,100 fewer aggravated attacks with firearms.

Chicago may have taken great strides in reducing its crime rate, but it was hardly the only city to do so in the past year. The overarching trend for 2004 was for crime to continue to decline, or at least to grow no worse - a continuation of the steep, then gradual, drop-off that began in the 1990s.

It wasn't a banner year for every city. The homicide rate went up in St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, and Boston. Problems with gang- and drug-related violence and juvenile crime, in particular, persist, and many violent offenders are being released on parole. But the number of murders also dropped in Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Oakland, and Miami, among others, and declined 6 percent nationally, according to FBI statistics for the first six months of the year.

The steadily low rates have surprised experts who expected crime to increase. The are many reasons it should, says Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University: fewer job opportunities, slashed social-service budgets, the added anti-terrorism duties for police officers. "All of these factors could contribute to making things worse, but they don't seem to be," he says. Since 2000, the crime rate "has been impressively flat."

The most notable story for 2004, by all accounts, is Chicago's.

In 2003, the city racked up 600 homicides - the most in the US, despite being only the third-largest city. For murder rates - homicide divided by population - its record was even worse. In 9 of the 10 years prior to 2004, Chicago led the country.

So what happened? Much of the decline stems from changes implemented in June 2003, says Patrick Camden, a Chicago Police Department spokesman.

The police began using technology that showed crime trends as they occurred, and deployed officers to violent areas.

"If a shooting occurred in a certain gang area, it didn't take too much to realize there would be a retaliatory shooting," explains Officer Camden, citing an incident in June when police apprehended a stolen car with three armed gang members right after a shooting by a rival gang. "That's a murder that never happened."

The department also stepped up surveillance of drug activity, uncovering more than 40 street-corner rings last year. Typically, officers would find the ring, videotape it for a week or two, then arrest everyone en masse, with hard-to-refute evidence that led to conviction rates approaching 98 percent.

Officers stepped up surveillance of neighborhoods with drug activity, both with standard patrols and street-corner cameras, intensified community policing, and seized 10,509 guns. "We looked at New York, Houston, and Los Angeles, took bits and pieces from each [city's strategies], and then developed our own technology, which we believe is second to none," says Camden.

Still, perception is everything, and many residents in high-crime areas say it's still too dangerous.