WASHINGTON — Violent crime in the United States continued its record-setting decline last year, but the gap between the number of black crime victims compared with whites seems to be growing, according to data released Sunday.
Nationwide, the rate of violent crime dropped 10% in 1999--reaching its lowest level in the 27 years that federal authorities have been surveying tens of thousands of households across the country each year on their experiences with crime.
Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said the continuing decline--marking a record sixth consecutive year--"is good news for all Americans," reflecting the success of a booming economy, more police officers on the streets, tougher sentencing policies and a combination of other factors.
The drop, she said, "demonstrates that the innovative and collaborative policies and programs among federal, state and local law enforcement work."
In Los Angeles, however, police say they are worried about a recent spike in crime citywide since April, and Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks has called a meeting with his top deputies today to try to pinpoint possible explanations.
Through last week, violent crime in Los Angeles was up nearly 11% compared with the same period a year ago, Lt. Horace Clark said. "That's obviously of concern to us," he said.
Officers Spent Fewer Man-Hours on Streets
Partly to blame, he said, may be the fact that officers have spent some 2,000 fewer man-hours on the streets in the past year because they have been redeployed to train for big events--Y2K last year, then this month's Democratic National Convention.
"That's a factor, but we don't want to be premature and say it's the only one," he said. "That's why we're looking at this."
The annual survey, based on a compilation of surveys from nearly 43,000 households, offers a broad snapshot of criminal trends. It tracks violent crimes such as murder, rape, robbery and assault, along with property crimes such as burglary and vehicle theft; it breaks down the frequency by sex, race, ethnicity, geography and other factors.
Reasons for Possible Concern
Nationwide, the figures released by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics also pointed to other reasons for possible concern among the generally rosy assessment.
Among those concerns was crime in the black community.
The rate at which blacks were victims of crime had fallen dramatically in the last few years--to the point that it was only slightly higher than that of whites.
But that trend reversed itself last year, with the gap growing wider, the new figures revealed. While the crime victimization rate for whites continued its marked descent last year--dropping to about 32 violent episodes per 1,000 people--the rate for blacks was essentially unchanged from the year before at 41.6 per 1,000 people.
As a result, what had been only a "slight difference" between blacks and whites in 1998 grew to "a significant difference" last year, Justice Department statisticians found.
"This is certainly something I would want to keep watching," Callie Marie Rennison, author of the Justice Department report, said in an interview.
"One year doesn't necessarily tell us much, but over time I would be worried about where that goes. Is this the beginning of a trend or just some noise in the numbers?"
Latinos were victimized at a rate of 33.8 incidents per 1,000 people, just slightly higher than the non-Latino average of 32.4 per 1,000, the study found. Other races and ethnic groups were not broken out individually.
More Efforts Urged in Minority Areas
Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington bureau of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said the racial divide underscores the need for even greater anti-crime efforts in minority communities.
"Most crimes are done out of desperation, whether that desperation comes from poor economic conditions or other factors," Shelton said.
"What we're seeing is that the overall economy is doing great, but all of that hasn't quite made its way down to communities like the African American community, and this [study] is one those indicators that lets us know that so much still needs to be done," he added.
Among the other findings in the Justice Department report, statisticians found that:
* Crime saw a particularly sharp drop in the Western United States, which historically has seen higher rates than other parts of the country.
* Although virtually all types of violent and property crime dropped significantly last year, motor vehicle thefts were one key exception, with virtually no change.
* Teenagers age 16 through 19 were still the most likely age group to fall victim to crime, but their rate fell dramatically from 91 incidents per 1,000 people to 77 per 1,000.
Children age 12 through 15 are now nearly as likely to be the victims of crime as older teenagers, the study found. Senior citizens are the least likely crime victims.