Cities in the US Are Struggling to Cope With Record-Level Violent-Crime Rates

IN Los Angeles, a high school football game between two inner-city schools is canceled because of concern about gang violence.In Columbus, Ohio, a record is set for homicides - with a month still to go before the end of the year. In Brooklyn, N.Y., police offer to buy guns from people in hopes of curbing a wave of violence in the borough that some now call Dodge City. America's main streets are increasingly becoming mean streets. Fanned by demographic changes, drugs, and more lethal weaponry, violence is continuing to spiral upward in many urban areas in what may be a somber portent of the 1990s. The good news: The violence is stirring fresh attempts to "take back the streets" from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. "We are on track for crime to be up," says Barry Krisberg, president of the California-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "We have a higher percentage of youth hitting their teens, many of whom grew up in poverty. I think we will see the violence continue throughout the decade." In what is becoming an annual ritual, Congress debated and then failed to pass a crime bill last week. It may be just as well: Criminologists say the legislation wouldn't have done much to make America's streets safer. Most of the provisions dealt with federal crime - 3 percent of the nation's total. Several major planks - imposing the death penalty for more federal offenses, placing restrictions on appeals by death-row inmates, relaxing rules on the introduction of illegally obtained evidence at trials - wouldn't directly affect many people, experts say. Further, the $3 billion in aid that would have gone for drug treatment in local prisons, neighborhood policing, and other programs would have been inadequate, they add. "The amount of money they talked about giving to state and local police was small," says Jim Fyfe, a criminologist at American University. "We have to stop thinking about criminal-justice bills. The criminal-justice system is the institution of last resort." Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist and dean at Carnegie-Mellon University, is more blunt. "It struck me as almost a classic example of symbolic politics," he says. "I didn't see much in the legislation that could have had a meaningful impact." Out in the precincts, some of those who confront crime daily would welcome any federal attention. "You can't legislate crime away," says Angelo Bitsis of the Miami Police Department. "But a federal crime bill wouldn't hurt. We'll take anything we can get."

Breaking records Through July of this year, violent crime rose 5 percent in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Violent crime has been rising about 5 percent annually since 1987, except for last year, when it jumped 10 percent. A spot-check of some of the largest cities shows a continuing rise in murder rates in many areas after a pause in the 1980s. New York is on track to break its record of 2,245 murders set last year. Los Angeles, with 928 murders through last week, is closing in on its 1980 record of 1,028. Gang-related killings here are up for the fourth straight year. Homicide rates are disturbingly high this year in Chicago, Houston, and Columbus, Ohio. Washington, D.C.'s rate has escalated the past four years and shows no signs of abating. On the bright side, Detroit and Miami are seeing their high murder rates stabilize or drop. Philadelphia's tallies are also down. In cities where rates are rising, experts cite some of the usual culprits: drugs, more firepower on the streets, a society increasingly desensitized to violence. Another explanation is the "baby boomerang the coming of age of children of post World War II baby boomers. Criminologist James Fox, who tracks homicide trends, says the last murder wave extended from the mid-1960s to 1980, a time when baby boomers were reaching their late teens and early 20s - an age particularly vulnerable to violent crime. Their children are now reaching that age. "The 1990s will be an extremely difficult time in terms of violent crime," says the dean of Northeastern University's college of criminal justice.

Initiatives for the streets As a result, Mr. Fox and others suggest more programs targeted at inner-city youths: early education, day care, after-school programs, drug treatment and prevention, initiatives to aid kids' socialization and strengthen the family. All these, of course, cost money and take time to show results - luxuries those in political office usually don't have.

Local leadership Cities are struggling to cope. Last week, Washington, D.C., Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon unveiled a program to stem crime in the nation's capital. It mixes toughness (beefing up police, concentrating officers in problem-prone areas, stiffer penalties) with some longer-range thrusts (social service programs aimed at at-risk youths). Police in Columbus have been saturating drug-infested neighborhoods under Operation Active Criminal Eviction, though civil libertarians have objected to elements of the drive. Brooklyn and San Francisco are offering gun-amnesty programs under which residents can turn in weapons for cash and not be charged for firearms possession. Philadelphia netted more than 1,000 weapons in such a program this summer. Frustrated by increased gang shootings here, two Los Angeles City Council members are pushing for the creation of a system to register guns and restrict the sale of ammunition - but it is opposed by the gun lobby, among others.

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