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Violent crime takes first big jump since '91

Murder numbers climb in smaller cities

From Terry Frieden
A Justice Department official says, "We don't really know what's driving this."


Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Murders in the United States jumped 4.8 percent last year, and overall violent crime was up 2.5 percent for the year, marking the largest annual increase in crime in the United States since 1991, according to figures released Monday by the FBI.

Robberies nationally increased 4.5 percent, and aggravated assaults increased 1.9 percent, while the number of rapes last year fell 1.9 percent, the report said.

Crime increased most noticeably in several categories in many mid-sized cities and in the Midwest.

Law enforcement authorities and criminologists reacted cautiously, uncertain whether the preliminary statistics for 2005 signal the end of a long downward trend in crime or simply a one-year anomaly.

Senior Justice Department officials struggled to make sense of the new figures, and said Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had ordered them to try to find out what may account for the increases.

Richard Hertling, deputy assistant attorney general for legal policy, termed the new crime figures "troubling," but stressed the numbers are preliminary, and do not lend themselves to easy conclusions.

"We really don't know what's driving this," Hertling said. "We need to be be careful not to overinterpret or overreact."

The director of the Justice Department Bureau of Justice Statistics, Jeff Sedgwick, said, "It's certainly a matter of concern. But the question is this -- 'Is this a real increase or is it ... statistical noise, which you see with year-to-year changes?' "

Justice officials rejected the notion that resources were taken away from fighting crime to combating terrorism. They noted that combating crime has historically been largely a local responsibility, unlike national security and terrorism, which are federal obligations.

Crime figures had begun to level off in the last few years and some categories had edged up slightly in 2001, but had not shown an increase of this size.

Several experts cited an aging population and stiffer sentencing as key factors that contributed to the gradual reductions in crime throughout the 1990s and into the start of the new century. But some leading criminologists say those factors are changing and they are not surprised by the new numbers.

"There is an 'echo boom,' with an increasing number of late adolescents, particularly blacks and Latinos," said James Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. "Also, more people incarcerated in the '80s are now being released to their neighborhoods, and some are back to their old ways and old gangs," Fox said.

The statistics for all cities of 100,000 or more show the largest increase in overall violent crime regionally occurred in the Midwest, where the total of murders, robberies, rapes and aggravated assaults increased by 5.7 percent last year.

FBI officials, who compiled the figures supplied by local police departments, noted sharp variations among cities, and even among categories of crime within cities, leaving few discernible patterns.

In Houston, where murders increased from 272 to 334, officials said they did not have sufficient data to know whether post-Katrina residential shifts had been a factor. New Orleans' crime data was not available.

In Detroit, where murders declined, robberies increased sharply. In most of the nation's largest metropolitan areas, overall crime declined, while in many smaller to medium cities, crime -- including murders -- increased.

Authorities said the spread of gangs into smaller cities with fewer police resources may account for some of the violence being reported.

In Memphis, Tennessee, the number of murders rose from 107 in 2004 to 136 in 2005. In Norfolk, Virginia, murders rose from 35 to 58; in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from 48 to 58; in Las Vegas, Nevada, from from 131 to 144; and in St. Louis, Missouri, from 113 to 131.

Police in some cities said crime increases reflected unusually low numbers in 2004, rather than unusually high numbers in 2005.

Final figures and detailed statistical analysis, which may provide clues to the significance of the preliminary 2005 figures, are scheduled to be released by FBI officials in September.

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