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Key factor in murder trends: youth, gang violence.

Some cities are seeing a drop in the number of officers on the beat and a shift in police resources to fight terror.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 4, 2008

In Philadelphia: Police walked residents through a crime scene last June. The city's homicide rate declined last year.

Joseph Kaczmarek/AP/file


New York

Murders are down to a 40-year low in New York and Chicago. Yet homicide rates are on the rise in Baltimore and Detroit – and dramatically so in New Orleans.

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In that variance is a positive story about cities' successful attack on crime and gun violence, but also an alarm about rising gang-related and youth violence, particularly within the African-American community.

Across the US, the incidence of intentional killing is still relatively low compared with the early 1990s, when crack and gang violence had a deadly grip on America's large cities. Indeed, the homicide rate is almost half what it was then. But it is ticking up – in some cities quickly because of surges in the number of young people involved in gangs.

An analysis of federal crime data by Northeastern University's James Alan Fox found a 52 percent jump in the number of murders committed by male African-American teens between 2002 and 2006, and smaller increases in those committed by black men and women. In contrast, the number of killings committed by whites of any age during the same period showed no increase.

"Some cities are experiencing gang problems that are spiraling out of control, and others are not," says Professor Fox. "That's essentially the issue."

Criminologists cite a variety of factors for the increases, from a drop in the number of officers on the beat to a shift in resources to fight terror to cuts in federal spending on youth programs and gang prevention. Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, also cites a lack of economic opportunity for young people.

"The phenomena are very different and local across the country: There's now no major national drug epidemic like there was in the early 1990s," says Professor Blumstein. "All politics is local. Also, these days, all crime is local, too."

Still, it's clear that the availability of resources for police and prevention programs – as well as economic development – plays a key role in determining which cities have higher homicide rates. Take New York, at its 40-year low, and compare it to Baltimore, which is at an eight-year high.

"New York has more money for youth programs, prevention programs, and things like summer jobs, so they're able to control their gang problem," says Fox. "Whereas other cities like Baltimore don't have the resources to offer the same alternatives."