Daily Doc: Be Alarmed, But Not Too Alarmed

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This item comes from reporter Will Sullivan, who has covered crime for U.S. News:

To hear Chuck Wexler tell it, American cities are at "the front end of a tipping point in violent crime." And as executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which seeks more federal funding for law enforcement, he has the numbers to back it up. A new report published today by PERF found increases in both robbery and homicide in 2006 compared with 2005. (Text here).

But here's a thing or two to consider:

In January, after hearing rumblings about a violent crime surge, U.S. News collected the homicide totals from the 20 largest American cities. Like the PERF report, the numbers told of a noticeable uptick in murder in 2006. But talk of a tipping point seems premature.

Unlike the '80s and '90s, when violent crime numbers spiked and then plummeted nearly everywhere, the study found significant variation across cities. Of the 56 jurisdictions reporting their numbers to PERF, 50 percent experienced an increase in homicide from 2005 to 2006. The other half saw homicides either decline or stay the same.

Other categories, including murder between 2004 and 2006 and robbery between 2004 and 2006, are more consistent, but there are still plenty of cities that buck the trend. The 29 percent of cities that haven't seen homicides increase since 2004 include Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Denver, Fort Wayne, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.

The rise in homicides and robberies is also significantly lower than what PERF would have projected at midyear, when it surveyed 55 law enforcement agencies. That study found that homicides had increased 4.24 percent between January and June of 2006, compared with the same period the previous year, while robberies had increased 9.71 percent. By year's end, PERF found only a 2.89 percent rise in homicides and a 6.48 percent rise in robberies.

It's also worth keeping in mind that PERF's reported "surge" still leaves the country with violent crime numbers that would have astonished police and citizens only 10 years ago. If the increases experienced in the 56 jurisdictions that reported to PERF held true nationwide, there would have been 17,174 murders and 444,151 robberies in 2006. That compares with 24,526 murders and 659,870 robberies in 1993.

Whether we will return to those bad old days is anybody's guess, and any increase in violent crime means more lives damaged or ended. But let's keep it in perspective.