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Urban Crime Resurges After Decade Drop

Trends: A report shows that the dip in violent offenses has hit a wall. Some are pointing fingers at the economy.

November 25, 2001|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Many of the nation's big cities are reporting a rise in murders this year, leading some crime experts to warn that the decade-long trend of good news on crime, much like the economy, may have come to an end.

Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Boston and Pittsburgh are among the cities where homicides have gone up significantly this year. This marks a reversal from the 1990s, when murder and violent crimes declined steadily.

The Los Angeles Police Department reports 520 homicides as of Nov. 17, up from 479 during the same period last year. The number suggests that the city will record its second consecutive increase in murders after a period of declines.

Chicago police have recorded 598 homicides this year, up from 567 during the same time last year. Phoenix police say they have tallied 220 homicides, up from 172 last year.

The booming economy of the last decade is credited with helping push down the crime rate, and the sudden pullback in the economy may push up crime, some experts say.

"I had predicted we'd see crime rates go up this year," said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. "It's not just unemployment going up. The youth population is growing, and you have more people coming out of prisons with bad attitudes and poor skills."

But others caution that it is too soon to say that general crime rates are going up again.

New York is reporting further declines in crime, despite the redeployment of its police force since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The nation's largest city said it recorded 559 homicides through Nov. 18 (excluding the roughly 3,600 people killed in the attack on the World Trade Center). At the same time last year, New York had 613 murders.

Philadelphia had 277 murders as of this week, down slightly from the 279 recorded last year. Dallas had 197 murders, down from 203; and San Diego had 54 murders by the end of September, the same number as last year.

"There doesn't seem to be a clear national trend," said Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "Some cities are going up. Some are going down. And overall, it appears to be flat."

But a flat rate, or no change, would be a change in itself, since crime rates fell sharply during the late 1990s.

The Justice Department issues an annual report on crime that is based on FBI data and reports from crime victims. Its most recent annual report found that violent crime in 2000 had fallen 15% and property crimes were down by 10% over the past year. Overall, the "crime index" for 2000 was the lowest since 1972, the department reported.

The Times surveyed police departments in the nation's largest cities for homicide figures for this year and last. The number of reported homicides gives an early indicator of the annual crime rate. Other indicators, such as drug arrests or reported larcenies, are less reliable because they can fluctuate for reasons that have little to do with the actual crimes.

In the weeks after Sept. 11, for example, New York police were less interested in making drug arrests, and some victims of petty crimes did not bother to report them. The result was that police statistics showed a drop in those two crime categories, even though drug dealing and purse snatching may have continued at their usual rates.

The annual homicide rate for the nation fell from a high of 9.8 murders per 100,000 people in 1991 to 5.7 per 100,000 in 1999. That was nearly as low as the rate as in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

From 1965 to 1980, the homicide rate doubled, to a high of 10.8 in 1980. It hovered just below that level until the steep decline of the 1990s.

Nonetheless, experts who track crime trends, like stock market watchers, were convinced that the good news would not continue forever.

"Everyone has been wondering when it will end," said UC Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring of the long decline in crime. "In urban America, the 'help-wanted economy' of the late 1990s was an enormous factor. Anyone who could set an alarm clock and get up on time could find work. If you're working eight hours a day, you will have less need for money and less time for burglary and assaults. But now that the economy has gone thump, it is reasonable to expect something will happen with the crime rate."

However, Zimring and others stressed that trends in crime and the economy are not always linked. In the late 1960s, for example, both the economy and the crime rate soared.

This was attributed largely to demographics. Since most murders and violent crimes are committed by young men ages 14 to 25, an increase in the number of teenagers is usually followed by a rise in the crime rate.

In Los Angeles and Phoenix, police officials said the murder rate is driven in part by the patterns of drug dealing and gang activity. The crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s was followed by a surge in murders as gangs fought for turf.

Lt. Horace Frank, a spokesman for the LAPD, attributed the rise in homicides to a surge in the number of young people, the return of convicts who were imprisoned during the 1990s and the worsening economy.

*

Times staff writers Jill Leovy in Los Angeles, Lianne Hart in Houston and John Beckham in Chicago contributed to this report.

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