Crime rates, slated to rise, fell in 2003

Overall, crime was slightly lower than for 2002, but the pattern was uneven around the country.

Despite predictions that crime was sure to shoot up, 2003 was not a bad year for shop owner Frank Avdou or for the country as a whole.

Mr. Avdou's "Five in One" in a rugged Phoenix neighborhood experienced only one break-in and one robbery, compared with more than twice that many the year before. Nationally, preliminary statistics show the overall crime rate has also dropped, although only slightly from 2002, continuing its trend of leveling off after the great crime drop of the 1990s.

Indeed, the crime statistics paint the country as a patchwork quilt in terms of safety.

In some cities, like New York, constant police vigilance in high-crime areas has caused the rates of urban violence to continue to plummet to levels not seen since 1968, making the Big Apple the safest big city in the country for the second year in a row. But in other urban areas, murder and mayhem are definitely on the rise. Dallas, for instance, saw a 51 percent hike in overall crime, as scandal rocked the local police department and increased drug trafficking got a tighter grip on struggling neighborhoods.

And buried within various national statistics are troubling signs that the crime drop has bottomed out and could soon turn into that long-predicted increase in delinquency and law breaking.

First, there are the budget cuts. Police forces have been slashed across the country as cities and towns cope with crippling deficits. Then, there is the hike in homicides: While only a 1.1 percent increase, it was concentrated in gang-related killings. A similar hike in the 1980s was a harbinger of trouble across the nation during the crack epidemic that ravaged many inner-city neighborhoods.

Finally, there are the perceptions of Americans from Pittsburgh to Palo Alto who lock their doors for safety. A Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans like Thomas James, a mechanic in Pittsburgh, now think crime is on the rise, compared with 47 percent in 2000. That has led some analysts to speculate that the statistics haven't caught up with the reality of street life.

Combined, all of those factors have led some criminologists to conclude that it's time to gear up for the future.

"We need to rededicate ourselves to crime prevention and control and take off the rose- colored glasses," says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "All of these budget cuts could endanger us - I know people like seeing tax refunds, but that's little consolation when you're looking down the barrel of the gun."

The tale of one city

New York City probably has the most remarkable crime story in the country right now. It's managed to lower crime another 5.5 percent in 2003, even with fewer resources during a fiscal crisis.

In 2001,the city had about 40,000 cops. In 2003, the force was down ten percent to 36,000 officers because of retirements and budget constraints on hiring replacements. Another thousand officers have been shifted to antiterrorism duties.

So with significantly fewer resources, New York's "finest" have made life for fashion designer Signe Baird even more comfortable than before - something she didn't quite believe possible.

"I feel extremely safe," she says, her pocketbook slung casually over her shoulder during a packed rush hour in the subway. "No car-jackings, no drive-by shootings - I mean, this is the safest city in the country."

A few months ago, police officials were puzzled by the plummeting number of assaults and robberies. Some experts believe that counterterrorism efforts, which put a lot more men in blue on avenue corners, could be having a deterrent effect.

But that's almost impossible to measure. So police looked for deeper reasons when analyzing statistics. It became clear, they say, that a new strategy called Operation Impact was a driving force.

Starting last January, police identified high crime areas - neighborhoods with frequent shootings - and set up field command posts. They flooded the neighborhoods with as many as 1,500 additional officers who targeted gangs, drug traffickers, and people with outstanding warrants for arrests.

"In those areas crime came down by as much as 40 percent," says Deputy Commissioner of Administration Paul Browne. "So that drove the rest of the citywide crime rate."

That's an example of how police practices have a positive impact on the safety of a city. While they play only a partial role, Dallas shows what can happen when police are preoccupied with other things. There the department is still reeling from a faked-drug scandal, questionable shootings, and the firing of the chief.

Crime was up 50 percent in the first half of this year and shows no signs of abating, in part because it is also struggling with increased numbers of felons returning from prison and destabilized drug markets, which have become increasingly violent.

Other cities are coping with similar problems and have seen spikes in their rates as well, including Phoenix, which was up 65 percent, and Atlanta, up by 25 percent. But those are balanced to some degree by places like St. Louis, where the crime rate plummeted almost 30 percent.

"What you get are a lot of ups and downs," says Alfred Blumstein of the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University. "That suggests the crime rate is a phenomenon that's much more associated with the conditions in individual cities, partly due to drug traffic and partly the activities of police."

Crime indicators

That said, there are national trends that impact crime across the board - like the number of adolescents at their peak crime-committing years, job opportunities, and the numbers of people being released from prisons. All of those indicators are now pointing in the wrong direction.

"I can think of lots of reasons why crime rates are going up, I have lots of difficulty thinking of [reasons] why they are going down," says Professor Blumstein.

Some experts are also puzzled by the increased national perception that crime is on the rise, when the statistics show it's simply leveling off. One theory: the threat of terrorism has put smaller crimes into perspective.

"A lot of the crime levels are rather hard to interpret. For instance, aggravated assault and larceny are often times measures of victims' willingness to report," says Prof. Fox. "If we seem to be very much on alert for terrorist activity, a twenty-dollar theft may seem trivial for someone to report, particularly when the color is orange."

Frank Newport of the Gallup Poll believes another contributing factor may be that statistics just haven't yet caught up with reality. "Maybe next year we'll see the numbers start to go up because it's the people that are out there," says Mr. Newport "Maybe the FBI crime statistics will catch up with the people."

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