It's too soon to call it a trend, but last year's jump in murders – particularly in smaller cities – has some police and crime experts worried.
Murders rose 4.8 percent, the largest percentage increase in 15 years, according to the preliminary FBI numbers released Monday. And while the number of murders in the nation's largest cities barely changed, cities with smaller populations saw a much sharper increase. Murders were up 76 percent in Birmingham, Ala., 40 percent in Milwaukee, and 42 percent in Kansas City, Mo., and 12.5 percent on average for all cities between 100,000 and 250,000 people.
"This looks like something real," says David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "It's usually very unwise to read too much into the year-to-year movement. But within the general national decline [in violent crime in the past decade] there has been a general trend in the smaller jurisdictions and in rural areas that has been on the increase."
Experts have cited a wide range of possible causes for the jump, including budget cuts to police and social services, the proliferation of guns, diversion of police to the war on terror, growing meth use (perhaps one reason for the larger increase in the Midwest), and the spread of violent ideas through media and music.
But they also, like Professor Kennedy, caution against alarmist readings of statistics that can be thrown out of whack by a few cities and can fluctuate so much from year to year.
The nation's last big crime surge lasted from about 1985 to 1993, when the spread of crack cocaine and guns on the street played a part in big increases in murders and other violent crimes. That was followed by sharp decreases in the 1990s, and a largely flat crime rate since 2000.
Unlike those big shifts, this year's jump seems to be more caused by local phenomena than any broad national trends, say experts. But that doesn't mean it should be ignored.
"The sky is not falling, it's not an epidemic, but it does suggest it could be a cause for concern unless we get back to fighting crime the way we did in the 1990s," says James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. "When we started to see a reduction in crime, we shouldn't have been cutting programs, we should have been reinforcing them."
Professor Fox and others cite community policing, after-school and summer-jobs programs, and other grass-roots efforts that can make a big difference in getting young people off the streets.
And they wonder if the most recent increase is a signal that small cities, rather than being complacent, need to start taking the sort of initiatives that have helped places like New York and Chicago make big inroads in their murder rates.
"The smaller cities felt immune from what they regarded as big-city problems and never put in place these kind of programs," says Jack Levin, head of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University. "They're playing catch-up now."
For those cities that saw big jumps in murders last year, figuring out the reasons can be a challenge.
"I wish there was something we could put our finger on and go attack it," says Keith Bridges, public affairs manager for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in North Carolina. The area had seen steady years of decline in murders before last year's jump from 60 to 85. He attributes the increase in part to the Charlotte area's growing population.
In January, police there initiated a 70-member street-crimes task force, making numerous arrests of violent criminals and pulling hundreds of guns off the streets. Every week, the task force picks a "hot spot" to focus on.
"We are hoping that that is going to make a difference," says Mr. Bridges.
Police in Kansas City, Mo., created a task force to see if there were any common threads among last year's murders – 127, compared to 94 the year before. (The department's numbers are higher than the FBI's.) The department's budget hasn't changed, and police didn't think the increase was due to gangs, which are not well organized in the city.
Police found that 85 percent of the victims last year had some sort of criminal record – a higher portion than is typical – and that the use of guns in homicides is up (105 of the homicides were shootings). In response, they doubled the number of detectives assigned to investigate assaults.
"We want to stop it before they become homicides," says Capt. Rich Lockhart, a spokesman for the police department. "Shooting is a homicide with bad aim."
So far this year, murders in Kansas City are down 28 percent compared to the same period last year.
One of the more disturbing signs that local police departments are noticing is an increase in the number of crimes occurring over small disputes.
"Drug [problems] have been reduced from the '90s," says Joe Mokwa, the chief of police in St. Louis, but perpetrators "are more likely to shoot one another over something that a decade ago might not have resulted in" a shooting.
St. Louis saw a 16 percent increase in murders, to 131, after a decline in the early part of this decade.