The New Math On Crime
Murder is up, but alarms about a new surge in violence seem overstated-so far
Even before the fireworks launched from the French Quarter's Jackson Square, 2006 went out with a bang in New Orleans-a handful of them, actually. At 7 p.m. on December 31, several of those bangs felled a 42-year-old man, who was found inside his FEMA trailer with multiple gunshot wounds to the back of his head. At 8:45 p.m., another man was shot several times and left dead on the sidewalk. At 10:12 p.m., a third was killed inside his home.
The three men were some of the last murder victims in an unusually bloody 2006. The year is expected to snap a long stretch of relatively good news on the homicide front nationwide, moving questions about the causes of crime increases off the back burner they have occupied for more than a decade. Those questions have so far eluded satisfying answers, and many experts contend that fears of a sustained rise in murders have little foundation. But the numbers are causing more than a little alarm and getting more than a little attention-from the nation's police chiefs, from Congress, from the Justice Department, perhaps even from the president in his State of the Union speech later this month. Slowly but surely, violent crime is returning to the national agenda.
Nationwide murder totals for 2006 will not be available until the fall, when the FBI releases its annual Uniform Crime Report. But an analysis by U.S. News shows a substantive, if uneven, increase in homicide in the nation's 20 largest cities. The 19 cities for which data were available had 4,152 homicides in 2006, compared with 3,919 the previous year-a 6 percent increase. Phoenix, which could not provide a year-end number, had neared its 2005 total of 238 by the end of November.
Murder is considered the most reliable crime statistic because such a high percentage of killings are reported. So the numbers are always watched closely as an indicator of crime trends. The beginning of the crack epidemic brought soaring murder numbers-a 31 percent increase between 1984 and its peak in 1993. But as the drug's popularity waned, so did murder, falling to around 16,000 a year and staying there for the early years after the millennium. More recently, the plateau has ended. Homicide showed an uptick in 2005, and the FBI's preliminary numbers from the first six months of 2006, along with the yearlong data collected by U.S. News, suggest the increase continued last year.
Some cities were hit especially hard. Philadelphia's 406 homicides were the most in the City of Brotherly Love since 1997. Oakland, Calif., topped its 2005 homicide tally by more than 50, and Cincinnati's 85 homicides were literally unprecedented.
As the year's crime numbers come in, the Police Executive Research Forum has sounded the alarm. An October report from the police advocacy group, titled "A Gathering Storm," expresses concern that the increases signal the beginning of "an epidemic of violence not seen for years." Though not all cities have suffered a crime spike, PERF pushes for more federal cooperation with local law enforcement and more federal funding. "If the pandemic flu were to hit 20 cities in the United States, I don't think the Centers for Disease Control would say, 'Well, let's see how many other cities it hits,'" says Chuck Wexler, the group's director.