Many large cities in the nation report increase in homicides

Some experts caution it is too early to say crime rates rising again

November 26, 2001|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

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

Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Boston and Pittsburgh are among cities where homicides have risen significantly this year. This marks a reversal from the 1990s, when homicides 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 killings 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 past decade is credited with helping push down the crime rate, and the sudden downturn might boost 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 rising again.

Through yesterday, Baltimore has recorded 229 homicides, about a dozen fewer than at the same time last year, city police said.

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 estimated 3,600 people killed in the attack on the World Trade Center). At the same time last year, New York had 613 homicides.

Philadelphia had 277 killings as of last week, down slightly from the 279 recorded last year. Dallas had 197 homicides, down from 203; and San Diego had 54 kilings 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, as crime rates fell sharply during the late 1990s.

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

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 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 were convinced that the good news would not continue forever.

"Everyone has been wondering when it will end," said University of California, Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring.

"In urban America, the `help-wanted economy' of the late 1990s was an enormous factor. ... 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," he said.

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

This was attributed largely to demographics. Because homicides and violent crimes are committed by young men 14 to 25, an increase in the number of teen-agers usually is followed by a rise in the crime rate.

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