By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
A surge in violent crime that began last year accelerated in the first half of 2006, the FBI reported yesterday, providing the clearest signal yet that the historic drop in the U.S. crime rate has ended and is being reversed.
Reports of homicides, assaults and other violent offenses surged by nearly 4 percent in the first six months of the year compared with the same time period in 2005, according to the FBI's latest Uniform Crime Report. The numbers included an increase of nearly 10 percent for robberies, which many criminologists consider a leading indicator of coming trends.
The results follow a 2.5 percent jump in violent crime for 2005, which at the time represented the largest increase in 15 years.
The latest numbers suggest that those results were not an anomaly but rather part of the first significant uptick in violent crime since the early 1990s, according to criminal justice experts.
Many communities, particularly those in urbanized areas, may be headed into a period of sustained crime increases, they said. While no one is certain of the causes, experts cited an increase in the number of young men in their crime-prone years, diminished crime-fighting assistance from the federal government, fewer jobs for people with marginal skills and even the ongoing growth in methamphetamine use in some places.
The numbers come amid heightened criticism of the federal government from many police chiefs and state law enforcement officials, who complain that the Bush administration has retreated from fighting traditional crime in favor of combating terrorism and protecting homeland security. Justice officials dispute those contentions and pointed yesterday to an ongoing study designed to identify solutions to the rise in violent crime.
"This confirms what law enforcement has been seeing and saying on a more anecdotal level: that crime is on the way up," said David A. Harris, a law professor at the University of Toledo who studies crime trends. "While it's still too early to be sure, you've certainly got things pointing in one direction."
One positive piece of news came in the category of car thefts and other property crimes, which dropped 2.6 percent overall. Even that portion of the report contained some bad tidings, however: Burglaries, another key indicator, rose 1.2 percent nationwide.
Homicide and assault rates rose by more than 1 percent overall, while the number of reported rapes dipped slightly.
The FBI's six-month report does not include statistics for the District, which reports crime statistics to the FBI only on an annual basis, officials said. Baltimore's overall violent-crime rate remained unchanged, the report showed. Data for individual states were not part of the analysis.
Rising homicide rates have prompted particular concern among law enforcement officials, and a surge in killings and other violent attacks in the Midwest played a significant role in driving up rates in 2005. But Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, noted that, unlike 2005, homicide rates plunged in many smaller and medium-size cities for the first half of 2006.
"Obviously these big cities are accounting for a big piece of the action in this report," he said.
The increase was especially dramatic in many cities of 500,000 residents or more, the FBI report showed, including a 28 percent increase in Houston that appears attributable in part to an influx of residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Homicides in New Orleans, whose population was greatly reduced after the storm, plunged by more than 60 percent in the same time period.
The numbers are certain to increase pressure on the Bush administration, whose detractors say local police concerns have been slighted by the focus on homeland security and counterterrorism.
The Justice Department inspector general's office has reported sharp declines in the number of FBI agents and investigations dedicated to traditional crimes since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In addition, the International Association of Chiefs of Police says that law enforcement programs at the Justice Department have been cut by more than $2 billion since 2002 and that overall funding for such programs has been reduced to levels of a decade ago.
"We've been looking at some pretty discouraging numbers, and we've always been concerned that as funding decreases, crime rates will increase," said Gene Voegtlin, the association's legislative counsel.
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston who has been critical of the Bush administration's crime-fighting strategies, said the overall rise in violent crime should be expected given dramatic cuts in assistance to local police and simultaneous increases in the population of males in their teens and 20s.
"We have many high-crime areas where gangs have made a comeback, where police resources are down and where whatever resources there are have been shifted to anti-terrorism activity," Fox said. "It's robbing Peter, and maybe even murdering Peter, to pay Paul."
Justice Department officials have repeatedly rejected such criticism, arguing that the causes and trajectory of the crime increase is still unclear. Nonetheless, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has launched a series of anti-drug and anti-gang initiatives at Justice, and he acknowledged at a crime conference in Boston last week that local police are struggling with "increased responsibilities" since Sept. 11, 2001.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said yesterday that the department's ongoing study of crime trends in 18 cities will help determine "what is causing this increase" and "which crime-fighting efforts are most effective."
"We are encouraged by the drop in property crime seen in most areas around the country, but we are again concerned about the increase in violent crime in some cities and towns," Roehrkasse said.