Washington is murder capital for second year

April 29, 1991|By David Ashenfelter | David Ashenfelter,Knight-Ridder News Service

The nation's capital is also the murder capital of the United States, according to a Detroit Free Press computer analysis of preliminary crime figures released yesterday by the FBI.

It was the second consecutive year that Washington, D.C., led the nation's most populous cities in per capita homicides. The study ranked cities over 100,000 population on the basis of per capita offense rates for crime categories monitored by the FBI.

Detroit, once scorned as the murder capital of the nation, dropped to fourth place in per capita homicides in 1990 behind Washington, New Orleans and Atlanta.

The FBI said overall serious crime increased 1 percent in 1990. Violent crime rose 10 percent, and property crime dropped 1 percent. It said that all types of violent crime increased in 1990. Murder and assault rose 10 percent each, forcible rape increased 9 percent, and robbery increased 11 percent.

Among property crimes, vehicle theft increased 5 percent, arson rose 1 percent, larceny remained unchanged and burglary fell 4 percent.

Atlanta led the nation on overall serious crime for the second straight year, the study showed. Grand Rapids, Mich., ranked first in per capita rape, Miami in robbery, Mobile, Ala., in assault, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in burglary and larceny. Newark, N.J., led in per capita motor vehicle thefts and Gary, Ind., had the highest arson rate.

The numbers were greeted with surprise and suspicion in many large cities.

"I'm stunned, shocked and appalled," said Lyn May, a press secretary for Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. "Our overall crime figures are down 14 percent. How anyone can come up with that figure is beyond me." She said that Atlanta is a safe city.

Lt. Louis Arcangeli, administrative assistant to Atlanta's police chief, said that Atlanta compared very favorably with cities of similar size last year. He pointed out that cities in the 250,100-499,999 population group reported an average reduction of 1 percent in overall crime last year, well below Atlanta's 14 percent decrease.

"You got to be kidding," Fort Lauderdale police spokesman Ott Cefkin said when told that his city ranked first in burglary and larceny. "That seems very odd. We're showing a decrease in burglaries last year."

Mr. Cefkin's boss, Police Chief Joe Gerwens, questioned the validity of the numbers.

"I'm not making excuses -- we certainly have crime problems, and I don't mean to minimize them -- but there are flaws in uniform crime reporting that you should know about," Chief Gerwens said.

He said that some departments like his are more rigorous and honest about reporting crime figures to the FBI. He said resort cities such as Fort Lauderdale suffer from the crime associated with large seasonal migrations of people without being allowed to count visitors as residents and, thus, reduce its per capita rates.

And, like police executives in Atlanta, Chief Gerwens said the only proper crime comparisons are between cities of comparable size in the same area with similar demographic characteristics.

"When we looked at Miami and Hollywood, two other major cities in southeast Florida, we found we had performed very well from 1989 to 1990," Chief Gerwens said. "In judging the performance of our department, I find that more useful than comparing me with Detroit or Toledo."

Miami police spokesman Angelo Bitsis expressed similar sentiments.

"Our 1990 population is understated by at least 100,000 in the official 1990 census," Mr. Bitsis said. "We've got a ton of illegal aliens here, and we have a ton of other people that never got counted, and so therefore it's our contention that any comparison based on population is not really valid."

In Mobile, Police Chief Harold Johnson attributed his city's top ranking in per capita assaults to Mobile's annual two-week Mardi Gras celebration between late January and early February and domestic violence resulting from worsening economic problems.

Chief Johnson, who was appointed in early 1990, said he redeployed police at this year's celebration. As a result, "We had the safest Mardi Gras in 25 years," he said.

Grand Rapids Police Chief William Hegarty attributed his city's top ranking for forcible rape to a number of factors, including local rape counseling programs.

"There are a variety of programs in Grand Rapids encouraging the victims of rape to report it. And because of that encouragement, the victims are reporting," Chief Hegarty said.

Washington officials declined to comment on the city's homicide rate.

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