A vexing leap in US robbery rate

Among the explanations for a 9.7 percent surge: overstretched police, more poverty, and new methamphetamine suppliers.

It's a crime chosen by those desperate for quick cash – and it's rising faster than a couple of hands during a stickup.

Possible explanations abound for the soaring robbery rate – 9.7 percent nationwide in the first half of 2006, according to federal crime statistics released this week. But a lead suspect in that troubling trend, say some criminologists, is added economic stress.

Small- to medium-size cities are the ones that saw the largest spikes in reported violent crime, especially robbery. In some of those, the poverty rate has also been climbing faster than the national average.

"It strikes me that many of the cities that have experienced increases in poverty and child poverty [in recent years] are the very same places experiencing increases in robbery right now," says Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri.

The Rust Belt has seen large rises in poverty rates between 1999 and 2005, according to a report this month by the Brookings Institution in Washington – and many of the region's cities turn out to have seen sharp increases in robberies this year. In Lansing, Mich., reported robberies rose 34 percent through June 2006, after its poverty rate climbed 7.5 percentage points over the previous six years. In Cleveland, the robbery rate rose 13.1 percent, and the incidence of poverty went up 6.1 points. In Rochester, N.Y.: robbery is up 49.8 percent, and poverty 4.1 points.

But many cities show no such correlation, meaning the root of the problem is more complex than simple economics. In the West, for instance, some places report flat poverty rates and more robberies.

It's too early to pinpoint the causes of the jump in violent crime, caution Mr. Rosenfeld and others. The FBI report this week showed violent crime overall climbing for the second straight year, after more than a decade of declines.

A mix of factors could be contributing, say experts. Among them: overstretched police departments, convicts reentering society, a change in the illegal market for methamphetamine, and a baby-boom "echo" that's entering the 15- to 25-year-old prime crime bracket.

"Economic conditions are certainly not the whole story behind robbery," says Rosenfeld. But "when we're trying to understand year-to-year changes and why they're occurring in certain places and not others, then we need to focus on those factors that change relatively rapidly as opposed to those that don't."

Rosenfeld's previous research shows that robbery rates rise when consumer confidence measures turn negative. Robbery tempts those who see few economic options, he and others say.

Robbery "provides cash immediately. So it's kind of a measure of how desperate people are for cash," says Richard Wright, chairman of the criminology department at the University of Missouri. He has studied differences between the crimes of burglary, in which victims are not present, and robbery, in which they are. Burglary rates spike with the introduction of new and valuable consumer goods, whereas robbery appeals to those seeking an immediate payoff – such as people who can't find work, are addicted to drugs like crack cocaine and methamphetamine, or have just left prison and have nowhere to go, says Mr. Wright.

The robbery statistic is "a kind of leading-edge indicator" of something amiss, says David Harris, professor of law and values at the University of Toledo in Ohio. "When you have an increasing demographic bubble in these crime-prone years [15 to 25], and you combine that with a ... willingness to do something like robbery, then you really do have reason to be concerned."

For his part, Mr. Harris suspects the worsening violent-crime rates may be related to less police presence on the streets. Touring the US to promote his new book, "Good Cops: The Case for Preventive Policing," Mr. Harris says he often hears that police departments have become overstretched. "They have a whole set of demands on their plates that simply didn't exist a few years ago," says Harris, referring to homeland-security duties and less assistance from federal agents reassigned to antiterrorism.

A Justice Department spokesman counters that view, noting that federal spending has never been more than 4 percent of state and local law-enforcement spending. The number of police officers has grown every year regardless of federal funding, he adds, and first responders have benefited from a windfall of homeland-security funding in recent years.

In parsing the crime data, few experts dwelled on illicit drugs. But "meth" was the first word off the lips of police officials in two cities where robbery rates climbed. Spokane, Wash., and Colorado Springs, Colo., are now battling the drug that has long beset the Midwest and rural areas. What's different now, say Spokane police, is that do-it-yourself meth production has been beaten back, and users are buying meth made in Mexico. Hence, a sudden need for cash among addicts.

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