It was an alarming trend. In 2005 and 2006 violent crime began to creep up again. With growing economic uncertainty and hundreds of thousands of convicts leaving prison each year, law enforcement officials began to warn that the country might be headed for a reprise of the crime wave of the late 1980s and early '90s."There are those that say this is a statistical blip, an aberration," Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum told the Associated Press at the time. "After two years, this is no aberration."
But the release this week of preliminary crime statistics for last year shows a 1.4 percent drop in violent crime and a 2.1 percent decline in property crime rates. The minor upticks in crime during 2005 and 2006 (2.3 percent and 1.9 percent, respectively, for violent crime) appear to be no more than minor fluctuations from the historic low crime rate reached in 2000.
Yet simply saying that crime rates have remained relatively stable nationwide hardly explains the great divergence in crime patterns across the country. The average figures mask much more complicated fluctuations between big cities and rural areas and between regions like the Northeast and the South. "It's almost like a tale of two cities," Wexler said this week.
Take, for instance, the overall drop in homicides. Nationally, the decline was 2.7 percent, but most of that decrease came from major cities like New York (down 20 percent, to 496 homicides) and Los Angeles (down 19 percent, to 380 homicides). Among cities with populations over 1 million, murder rates dropped 9.8 percent. That is a stark contrast to medium-size cities. Those with populations of 100,000 to 249,999 saw a 1.9 percent rise in murder rates. For cities with 50,000 to 99,999 residents, the increase was even greater: 3.7 percent.
What precisely explains why big cities are doing so much better isn't entirely clear. Criminologists point to several factors. For instance, major cities have more sophisticated policing methods and more resources to respond to any fluctuations in crime rates. Regardless, the drop in big-city murder rates has a strong influence on the overall average. "A big piece of what is going on by region is very much driven by what's going on in the big cities," says Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University.
Size wasn't the only factor. Northeastern cities represented the lion's share of the violent crime decline, with an overall drop of 5.4 percent. In addition to New York, cities like Boston and Philadelphia saw downturns in their murder rates. Yet others did not budge. For instance, Newark, N.J., reported 105 homicides in 2006 and 2007.
On average, violent crime in the South went up 0.7 percent, concentrated in large metropolitan areas like New Orleans (where homicides increased 29 percent, to 209) and Atlanta (where homicides went up 17 percent, to 129). In these instances, local factors played a key role. New Orleans is still trying to get a handle on the crime increase that followed Hurricane Katrina. In Atlanta, Deputy Police Chief Peter Andresen pointed to several factors leading to last year's increase, particularly heavy gang activity and an overhaul of narcotics units. He noted that, despite the increase in homicides, other violent crime, like aggravated assault, declined 2 percent.
This divergence is so widespread that, according to a recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, the number of cities reporting an increase in homicides was almost the same as the number reporting a decline.
But this divergence does not break down neatly into geographic or size categories. Instead, the pattern over the past few years is one of volatility in crimes rates. Many cities go up one year and down the next, some see their rates decline year after year, and others are continuously struggling with high rates.
Unlike in the late 1980s and '90s, when the crack epidemic sent crime rates up across the board, there "isn't a consistent set of national trends" these days, says Frank Zimring, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law.