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U.S. Crime Plummets for 5th Straight Year

Survey: Justice Dept. says violent offenses dropped 7%, thefts 12%. Numbers are at an all-time low, but law enforcement officials warn of complacency.

July 19, 1999|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Crime plummeted nationwide last year, for the fifth straight year, to its lowest levels since the government began keeping records a quarter-century ago, the Justice Department said Sunday.

Violent crime dropped 7%, according to the Justice Department survey of crime victims, while burglaries, car theft and other property crimes declined 12%.

Altogether, according to the Justice Department's annual survey of crime victims, there were about 31 million crimes last year, from rape to purse-snatching. The count in 1997 was nearly 35 million. Because the report is based on interviews with victims, it does not include homicides.

"This is obviously very good news," said Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. "To see that we have the lowest numbers we've ever had in the history of the survey and to see these kinds of drops across the board, across ethnic and racial lines, is very encouraging."

But Holder and other law enforcement officials warned against complacency.

The teenage population, which is responsible for a disproportionate share of crime, has reached a plateau in recent years but is expected to grow substantially over the next decade, said Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the nation's largest police labor group. Unless anti-crime efforts are intensified, he said, "we're going to be in for a horribly rude awakening."

Already, Pasco said, some members of Congress are proposing sharp cuts in money available to local police for discretionary gang and drug programs. "There are those who are inclined to declare victory over crime and move on, and it's way too early to do that," he said.

The new report is based on interviews conducted last year in 43,000 households with 80,000 people. Researchers found that only about 38% of the crimes discovered in the surveys had been reported to police--a figure consistent with rates for previous years.

Of every 1,000 people interviewed, about 38 said they had been victims of rape, robbery, assault or other crimes. Just five years earlier that figure stood at 52.

About 217 of every 1,000 people said they had been victims of burglary or theft, down from 319 in 1993.

"Crime just keeps going down," said Justice Department statistician Callie Marie Rennison, author of the report. "I was really surprised by just how much."

Among the survey's other findings:

* Cities, while still more dangerous than rural or suburban neighborhoods, experienced a sharper drop in crime than other areas.

* Residents in the western United States, at a rate of 47 per 1,000 people, were the most likely to be victims of violent crimes. The steepest drop in crime was in the South.

* Men were 30% more likely than women to be the victim of a violent crime, while blacks were somewhat more likely than whites to be victimized. There was virtually no difference between Latinos and non-Latinos.

* Offenders were armed with a firearm or other type of weapon in about a quarter of the violent crimes, while victims knew their attackers in 54% of the episodes.

The Justice Department report also noted that the overall decline in violent crime was triggered by a drop in aggravated assaults. From 1993 to 1998, the survey found, every major type of crime measured--rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, simple assault, burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft--saw a significant decrease.

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