Cities' warning signal on crime

While most US crime figures continue to drop, murder rates in some big cities are up, hinting at a possible shift.

From marauding youths in New York's Central Park to the slain granddaughter of Los Angeles's police chief, several high-profile events recently have returned national attention to an issue in decline for a decade: violent crime.

*In Boston, five murders in 72 hours (it had four in the first three months of 1999).

*A gun rampage in Pittsburgh kills five.

*In New York, seven employees of a Wendy's restaurant are bound, gagged, and shot. Five of them die in the robbery.

All this comes against a backdrop of rising murder rates in several major American cities, including New Orleans, St. Louis, Phoenix, and Milwaukee.

Responding to public outrage, city officials are taking swift action. This week in Los Angeles, for example, they held a violence summit. Boston and New York have called town meetings.

While overreaction is unwarranted, observers say, there is a concern. After a 10-year drop, crime rates - while not yet rising - may be leveling off.

Crime jump in several cities seen as a warning light

"It is a statistical fact that is finally upon us" says James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "The dropping-crime-rate party is over."

That doesn't mean it's time to start finger-pointing, he says, nor does it mean that law enforcement is suddenly doing something wrong. "Rather than lament the inevitable, we merely need to avoid complacency that crime is not an issue anymore," he says. "It can go up as fast as it went down unless we work hard at it."

Recent high-profile incidents do not indicate a return of crime to levels of previous decades, others hasten to add. Indeed, national statistics, on average, continue to indicate falling crime rates in key categories such as homicide, rape, and assault.

"Nationally, violent crime as yet shows no signs of creeping up, but rather the long decline is merely slowing down," says Sandy Smith, spokeswoman of the National Center for Health Statistics. "We are merely starting to see some upturns [in crime] in some places."

And long term, the outlook is still the best in decades. Homicide rates, for instance, which doubled from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, peaked in 1980. But the murder rate dropped from 9.8 per 100,000 in 1991 to 6.3 in 1998. Preliminary 1999 data also show that the murder rate dropped a further 8 percent between 1998 and last year.

"Long term, we still see homicide rates declining," says Stuart Smith, chief spokesman for the US Department of Justice Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Murder rate as indicator

While it is only one category of violent crime, homicide is often used as a key indicator because it is a more reliable indicator than other categories. Definitions and reporting techniques for rape and assault differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Recent events, primarily in several large cities, do reflect a slowing of the murder-rate decline in these metropolitan areas. If historical patterns continue, the trend indicates that the rest of the country might eventually follow.

"The big cities were where crime started to rise in the mid-1980s, and in turn where it started first to decline in the 1990s," says Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "There is no indication that crime is suddenly going up, but the dropoff does have to stop at some point, and it is likely that it will show up first in the largest cities."

For now, a spot check of several large US cities still shows results for the year 2000 are mixed, foiling any easy conclusions. Murder rates are down slightly or substantially in at least nine cities: Chicago, Denver, Miami, Phoenix, St. Louis, Houston, San Diego, Seattle, and St. Paul, Minn. They're up in seven others: Cleveland, Dallas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Baltimore, and Washington.

But when such statistics are held up against those for 1999, the longer trend seems more clear. Among 17 cities with more than 1 million people, Mr. Blumstein found six had an increased number of homicides from the previous year.

"Nationally, during the past decade, the homicide rate is down an average of 8 percent, but in the largest cities, it is down only 2 percent," he says. "This is where the trend is headed."

Overall crime rates

But experts warn of assuming too much. Month-to-month and year-to-year data can be misleading if analyzed out of context. Although murder is up in New York, overall crime continues to decline, falling 7.5 percent so far this year as compared with 1999.

"We're still at levels we have not seen for 30 years," says Marilyn Mode, New York deputy commissioner for public information.

And police say that this week's publicity surrounding gangs of teenagers in Central Park creates an unfair picture. Since 1994, there has been a 77 percent reduction of crime in the park, and a 10 percent reduction this year.

"[Central Park] is one of the safest places in New York City," says New York Police Commissioner Howard Safir.

At this week's summit in Los Angeles, participants agreed that corrective measures must go beyond good police work. Participants agreed that parents, schools, mental-health services, and businesses must work together to help guide youths who might otherwise gravitate toward crime and gang activity.

Those conclusions are some of the same ones reached by national experts. "With exceptions, we have generally done a good job of teaching the current teenagers about antiviolent behavior," says Mr. Fox. But he says teens are still the most susceptible to crime. What's more, teens are not passing on the lessons they've learned to other teens.

"Americans should be looking at these episodes as catalysts to reinvest in crime preventions that have worked," he says. Such things include "prehabilitation," such as after-school programs, as opposed to rehabilitation. "Better we build the child than rebuild the teen."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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