Crime Rate Has Plummeted To 30-Year Low

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007

Crime in Fairfax County continued its descent in 2006, reaching lows not seen since the early 1970s, even as the county's population has doubled over the past 30 years.

According to statistics released last week, Fairfax residents reported 17,108 serious crimes -- homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft. That was a 6.9 percent drop from 2005, and the lowest total in Fairfax police statistics dating from 1970. The closest was 17,835 in 1972, when the county's population was about 500,000. More than 1 million people live in Fairfax now.

The reported crime rate in Fairfax in the mid-1970s was about 4,500 serious crimes for each 100,000 residents. In 2006 it was about 1,700, a drop of more than 60 percent in 30 years.

Larceny and auto theft, two categories that account for the bulk of the crimes committed, showed declines of more than 9 percent last year. Rapes, homicides and aggravated assaults all had double-digit percentage drops from 2005.

The total number of crimes in Fairfax, along with the crime rate per capita, has declined for five straight years. Since 1995, the crime rate has risen only twice, in 2000 and 2001.

In releasing the basic statistics for last year, however, Fairfax police acknowledged significant increases in robbery -- up 18.4 percent -- and burglary -- up 17.6 percent. The total of 572 robberies was the highest in the past 30 years for which figures are available.

Bank robberies also soared in 2006, up from 19 to 43, a 126 percent increase. But detectives made arrests in 32 of the 43 bank holdups, a 74 percent clearance rate, far better than the nation's average robbery clearance rate of about 33 percent.

Police said the rise in robberies has continued this year, which they say is troubling because of the potential for violence. Chief David M. Rohrer said in a statement that stopping robberies is a top priority but that "our robbery increase unfortunately mirrors regional and national trends, with many localities experiencing significantly higher increases and significant increases in gun violence."

The trends Rohrer referred to were identified in a study by the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington. The study found that over the past two years, "violent crime is making a comeback," with steady rises in robberies, assaults and homicides in larger jurisdictions. Between 2004 and 2006, robberies rose 12.2 percent and assaults with guns rose 10 percent, the forum found.

"The crime reductions of the 1990s cannot be taken for granted," wrote Chuck Wexler, the group's executive director. "The nation is receiving a warning signal that federal, state and local governments must refocus their attention on crime."

The county's low burglary rate has long been a point of pride for Fairfax. Where in 1980 there were nearly 6,400 burglaries in one year, the total in 2005 had plummeted to 1,344. It rose a bit to 1,580 last year.

Police said burglary statistics indicate a decrease so far this year, compared with the same period last year.

Fairfax continues its unusual practice of counting multiple homicides as one slaying. For example, when three people are killed in one incident, often called a triple homicide, Fairfax police record it as a single homicide.

In 2006, the slayings of Detective Vicky Armel and Officer Michael Garbarino were counted as one homicide in Fairfax statistics. [The Washington Post maintains separate homicide figures for Fairfax, with each victim counted as a homicide.]

In 2005, a triple slaying committed by Nathan Cheatham in Great Falls on Christmas was counted as one homicide. If homicides are counted as defined by the FBI's Uniform Crime Statistics criteria -- "Score one offense per victim" -- Fairfax's total declined from 22 to 19 in 2006, not 20 to 18 as Fairfax reports.

But the difference has a negligible impact on Fairfax's overall crime totals and crime rate.

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