By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 2, 2007
The number of violent crimes in the United States rose for a second straight year in 2006, marking the first sustained increase in homicides, robberies and other serious offenses since the early 1990s, according to an FBI report to be released Monday.
The FBI's Uniform Crime Report will show an increase of about 1.3 percent in violent offenses last year, including a 6 percent rise in robberies and a slight rise in homicides, according to law enforcement officials, who described key findings in advance of the report's release. That follows an increase of 2.3 percent in 2005, which was the first significant increase in violent crime in 15 years.
Much of the increase was concentrated in medium-size cities, including the District of Columbia, officials said. Criminologists and law enforcement officials offer varying theories for the upswing, including an increase in the juvenile population, growing numbers of released prison inmates and the rise of serious gang problems in smaller jurisdictions.
Whatever the cause, the statistics are likely to create new political trouble for the Bush administration. Crime fighting has long been a signature Republican political issue, but this week Democratic lawmakers cited the new trend as evidence of weaknesses in federal assistance to local law enforcement.
"After years of driving crime rates down, we're now in reverse gear," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of a Senate crime subcommittee. "It's time to get back to crime-fighting basics -- that means more cops on the streets, equipped with the tools and resources they need to keep our neighborhoods safe."
With Monday's announcement looming, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales unveiled new anti-crime proposals in a speech yesterday at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Gonzales faces a possible no-confidence vote in the Senate for his handling of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year.
"In general, it doesn't appear that the current data reveal nationwide trends," said Gonzales, who did not disclose specific numbers from the report. "Rather, they show local increases in certain communities. Each community is facing different circumstances, and in many places violent crime continues to decrease."
The statistics do not take into account changes in city populations and reflect only an absolute rise in the number of crimes reported to law enforcement authorities. But Democrats and some law enforcement groups emphasized that the statistics, along with anecdotal reports, show a clear upward trend in violent crime over the past two years, particularly in cities such as Indianapolis and Milwaukee.
These critics say the increase has been spurred by declines in assistance from the federal government, including more than $2 billion in cuts in Justice Department law enforcement programs since 2002. Many police chiefs and mayors have complained about being stretched particularly thin by counterterrorism demands in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks.
The number of violent offenses fell steadily and often dramatically from 1993 until early in this decade, when the volume of reports began to level off. The first significant increase came in 2005, driven by dramatic spikes in homicides and robberies in many mid-size and large cities, from Cleveland to Houston to Phoenix. The Midwest was hit particularly hard, with a violent-crime increase twice as high as in the nation overall.
Law enforcement officials said the FBI report on Monday will show that similar trends held true in 2006, although the overall increase is lower. The number of rapes and assaults declined slightly, while property crimes, such as auto theft and vandalism, fell by 2.9 percent, continuing a long trend.
Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said the trend over the past two years differs significantly from the major surge in violent crime from about 1985 to 1992, which was driven by the crack cocaine trade and seen in large cities across the country.
Now, Blumstein said, some of the country's largest cities, including New York, have enjoyed continued drops in crime, due in part to aggressive and creative policing tactics. The increase "seems to be attributable to a number of medium-sized cities that saw very large increases," Blumstein said.
Gene R. Voegtlin, legislative counsel for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said less financial support from the federal government is "a big part of the equation" for smaller jurisdictions that do not have the resources of large cities. "If you don't devote resources to the problem, it's going to come back," Voegtlin said. "For the smaller to mid-size cities, one or two or five police officers can make a real difference."
But Gonzales, in his remarks yesterday at ATF headquarters, emphasized that "community-specific problems cannot successfully be tackled nationally or unilaterally because crime issues vary from city to city, and even between neighborhoods in a single city."
Gonzales unveiled proposed legislation that would set new minimum sentences, establish longer penalties for the illegal use of firearms, and broaden conspiracy statutes to allow for easier prosecution of violent gang members. The Justice Department also proposed to lighten some penalties against arms dealers for violations of the Gun Control Act, on grounds that the "additional flexibility" will give ATF an ability "to more effectively address violations."
Gonzales also announced that "violent crime impact teams" would be dispatched to four cities under an existing Justice Department program to curtail gang activity.
The announcements came as the Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, said in a report that federal anti-crime task forces often duplicate their efforts and do not communicate well with one another. Fine's report documented three cases in which federal agents mistook each other for criminals because they did not know about other operations.
The FBI's annual crime survey is based on a compilation of reports from more than 17,000 police agencies across the country. A final report, which usually differs little from the preliminary version, will be released later in the year.