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Crime Up in 2001, FBI Says

Rise is first in a decade, with increases in nearly every major category. Diversion of police after Sept. 11 may have left public less protected.

October 29, 2002|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A broad measure of major crime took its first jump in a decade during 2001, with increases in murder, rape, robbery and nearly every other category, the FBI reported Monday.

Although experts offered a wide range of social, demographic and economic reasons for the uptick, one longtime analyst of crime data suggested that the diversion of police to anti-terrorism tasks after Sept. 11 may have left the public somewhat less guarded from routine crime.

The FBI's Uniform Crime Report is based on reporting from more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States.

According to the annual study, there were 11.8 million serious crimes in the U.S. in 2001, up 2.1%.

The 15,980 murders across the U.S. marked a 2.5% increase, 422,921 robberies a 3.7% increase and 907,219 aggravated assaults a 0.5% decrease. Rape was up less than 1% to 90,491. Other categories of crime, including property crimes, burglaries, larceny thefts and auto thefts, were up by as much as 5.7%.

The Los Angeles metropolitan area experienced 391,068 serious crimes, including 1,074 murders. Orange County had 79,916 serious crimes with 63 murders. Accounting for population differences, Los Angeles had a murder rate of 11.1 per 100,000 population, versus 2.2 for Orange County.

The overall figures released Monday did not include the Sept. 11 attacks. The FBI reported separately that the terrorist strikes killed 3,047: 2,823 at the World Trade Center, 184 at the Pentagon and 40 in the plane crash in Somerset, Pa.

Criminal justice experts said that the changes were too small to be precisely interpreted and that any of a wide range of explanations could be made, based less on statistical analysis and more on political orientation.

"The increases look fairly minor, as far as I can see," said Floyd Feeney, a UC Davis law professor who has served on presidential commissions and other groups to study crime. "With changes of this magnitude, it is possible only to guess. This is certainly within the range of natural variation."

Feeney, who has been following crime statistics since the 1960s, said that year-to-year variations are difficult to analyze properly. Summaries of broad categories of crime are virtually worthless, he noted.

Feeney, however, observed that the increase in crime appeared to occur in the last three months of 2001. Although December tends to be a volatile month in most years, he noted that October and November appeared to stand out.

Feeney surmised that police attention in the weeks and months after Sept. 11 was directed away from traditional duties to anti-terrorism tasks. That may have left the public somewhat less protected from usual crime.

"In some ways, given the amount of police and public safety time taken away from traditional tasks, the surprise may be that there wasn't a greater increase in crime," Feeney said.

The percentage of crime that was committed in the final months of 2001 appeared to be somewhat higher than in earlier years, according to a month-by-month breakdown of the FBI's crime index totals, Feeney said.

Indeed, law enforcement officials made an estimated 13.7 million arrests for criminal offenses, a 2.1% decline from 2000. Those statistics do not include driving- related offenses. It isn't clear why reported crimes increased while arrests decreased.

All of the statistical shifts are fairly small, however. Although the total number of violent offenses went up in 2001 by 0.8%, the rate per 100,000 population declined by 0.4%.

Mike Doyle, a professor in the criminal justice program at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, said he believes the slight rise in crime represents a demographic shift that is once again adding to the population of young men most probable to commit crime.

"We had better get used to it," Doyle said. "If you get more young men, you get more crime."

Although overall crime went up for the first time in a decade, murder had already begun to inch up in 2000 compared with 1999. Similarly, drunk driving arrests have shown an uptick, another offense mainly committed by men in their 20s.

Doyle discounted the use of crime statistics for setting policy, though they have played an important role in such issues as prison construction, tougher criminal sentences and police budgets, among much else.

Some national crime experts said crime may be increasing because the downturn in the U.S. economy may have caused local police jurisdictions to decrease their budgets, whereas others said the slower economy reduced job opportunities for youth.

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