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 , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"It's not getting better, it's getting worse," says Brenda Rose, as she waits to get her hair done at Sarafina Hair Braiding on the city's west side. "I won't get on no bus anymore, because of the crime."

In fact, Ms. Rose's neighborhood, the Harrison Police District, has led the city in homicides for years, but last year saw one of the most impressive declines - more than 50 percent. Still, it had 25 homicides.

"It's a little safer," says Melvin Andrews, a salesman and father of a six-year-old, who also lives in the neighborhood. "The police are patrolling the streets more often, like they need to be. But the drug rate still bothers me.... The police try, but there's still work to be done. I don't want my son to grow up and be another statistic."

While Chicago celebrates, other cities are seeing a less encouraging trend. Baltimore's homicide rate is the highest it has been since 1999: 278 murders last year, although as elsewhere, the numbers are still lower than they were a decade ago. "We have gone up for the past few years, but we are way down [from the 1990s]," says Matt Jablow, a Baltimore Police Department spokesman.

The problems facing the city include drugs and a glorified thug culture, says the Rev. Willie Ray, a longtime activist who has been reaching out to urban youth for 35 years. He also blames city leadership and clergy who, he says, have abandoned the city. "The leadership and clergy don't see Baltimore as a mission ground ... they see it as a war zone," he says.

Reverend Ray is challenging city churches to "adopt" a street corner and take it back for the community, and to provide a safe haven for drug addicts and troubled youths. "Their church is the corner, that's where they congregate," he says.

The police, meanwhile, are following the lead of places like New York and Chicago in targeting high-crime neighborhoods and flooding them with officers. A new program focuses on repeat offenders, and the police department has created an organized-crime division to track the city's drug trade. Last year, 71 percent of homicide victims had drug-arrest histories, as did 57 percent of suspects.

Other cities, meanwhile, joined Chicago in registering declines. Washington recorded fewer than 200 murders in 2004 - the first time it's crossed that threshold in nearly two decades, and a 20 percent drop from the year before. In a more disturbing trend, 24 of the victims were 17 or younger, twice the number from 2003.

And New York, once infamous for muggings and gangs, continued its steady decline in murders. The city's 571 homicides were the fewest in 40 years, and a far cry from the 1990 peak of 2,245.

Much of the credit goes to the groundbreaking and much-imitated CompStat program, which holds precinct commanders more accountable for the crime in their area, and provides them with real-time information. A new program, Operation Impact, also allows precincts to request more officers during crime sprees.

The system "allows precinct commanders to ... dictate where manpower will have the greatest effect," says Detective Walter Burnes. "No one knows a precinct better than the commander."

Still, even as police departments celebrate progress, they acknowledge the work that remains. "On the bright side, there are 150 families that didn't have to bury somebody," says Chicago's Camden. "But there are 448 families that did. One homicide is one too many."

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