After two years of increases, violent crime in the United States seems to be on the wane.
Overall, the number of violent crimes fell by 1.4 percent from 2006; in the 10 largest cities, homicides fell by nearly 10 percent, according to the preliminary 2007 statistics released by the FBI Monday.
Still, experts caution against reading too much into year-to-year statistics, and note that broad nationwide or regional trends can often mask important trends – not all of them positive – in specific cities or demographic groups.
"I think we see a continuation of what is basically a flat trend that we've been experiencing pretty much since 2000," says Alfred Blumstein, a professor of urban systems at the Heinz School at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Certain cities – notably Los Angeles and New York – showed big drops in their murder rate, he notes, while others, like New Orleans and Atlanta, saw increases. "What we're seeing is more individual city-based experiences than any national picture," he says.
One of the most positive stories is New York City, which had 496 murders last year, 100 fewer than the year before and the lowest since comparable records have been kept. The city also saw a big decrease in the number of guns taken off the street, and ranked last among the 10 biggest cities in terms of crimes per capita.
"The numbers continue to go in the right direction, and it's because of the impressive efforts of the men and women of the [New York Police Department], as well as our innovative policing strategies and efforts to keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a statement.
America's two other largest cities – Los Angeles and Chicago – also made significant improvements in reducing murders and other crimes last year, a fact Professor Blumstein attributes in part to growing knowledge about how to tackle violence.
"They've got the managerial savvy and the slack resources that, when they see something start to go bad, typically in one of the hot-spot neighborhoods, they know what to do and they have the resources to deal with it," he says.
But criminologists say that some of the most important changes often occur in specific pockets and demographics and that simply looking at the overall decrease in violent crime can lead to a sense of complacency about progress even as attention is needed to stanch certain worsening problems.
For example, while the rates of murder committed by whites, by black women, and by black men over 24 years old have gone down since 2002, among black men between the ages of 14 and 24, murder increased 52 percent from 2002 to 2006, says James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. Since the preliminary crime report doesn't release demographic statistics, he hasn't yet been able to analyze the 2007 numbers.
"What you have is a general downturn in violence, which covers a sharp increase among one segment of the population, particularly inner-city young black males," says Mr. Fox. "Gangs have made a comeback, and because of illegal gun markets guns are easily getting into the hands of youngsters…. There's a generation of kids who aren't really focused on the future, and unfortunately, too many are killing each other."
Prevention programs – after-school programs, summer jobs, Boys and Girls Clubs, and more police on the street in targeted areas – are all needed, says Fox, but slimming city budgets mean they're often getting cut instead.
The big increase in homicides has been caused by gun violence, he adds, and yet most gun legislation has gotten less restrictive.
The other problem, say experts, is focusing too much on year-to-year statistics – which may be exaggerated because of a dip or rise the previous year – and on broad national statistics rather than more specific localized ones.
The big drug-connected crime spike in the late 1980s and early '90s, for instance, occurred largely in big cities, with handguns, among youths. "If you had looked at the overall national data, you might have missed it," says Jack Levin, codirector of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University.
Violence also tends to go hand in hand with economic conditions, he says, noting that more impoverished Southern states and cities often see the worst violence. In these latest statistics, the South was the only region to see an overall uptick in violent crimes, up 0.7 percent, though the trend, again, varied by city. Homicides were up significantly in New Orleans, Atlanta, and Jacksonville, Fla., but down in Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala.
"Poverty has an impact on crime in two ways," says Professor Levin. "First by creating more desperate individuals who use the illegitimate system because they don't believe the mainstream works for them, and second by reducing and maybe eliminating effective crime-fighting policies and programs." Given that, he says, the worsening economic conditions right now offer some cause for concern.