Major Crimes In U.S. Increase: 2001 Rise Follows 9 Years of Decline

By Dan Eggen, Washington Post, Sunday 23 June 2002; Page A01

The number of major crimes in the United States increased last year for the first time in a decade, bringing an end to a decline in violence that had resulted in the lowest crime levels in a generation, according to FBI statistics.

The increase included a 3.1 percent rise in murders reported by police departments nationwide, along with significant jumps in the numbers of robberies, burglaries and car thefts, according to the preliminary FBI survey, which was obtained by The Washington Post. Overall, major crimes in 2001 were up by 2 percent from the year before.

One exception to the national trend was the District, which reported a slight drop in crime of 0.4 percent, including lower numbers for homicide, aggravated assault and theft. But the District reported increases in several other serious crime categories, including robberies, burglaries and car thefts, the report says.

The national increase, outlined in an annual report to be released Monday by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, reverses nine years of declining crime numbers and is certain to fuel debates on Capitol Hill over proposed cuts in anti-crime measures.

The reversal comes amid budget pressures on many local police departments because of rapid declines in the tax revenues collected by state and local governments. In addition, the FBI -- which has been deeply involved in major narcotics and gang investigations -- is in the midst of a major reorganization that will result in less attention to traditional crimes in favor of efforts aimed at thwarting terrorist attacks.

Many police chiefs and criminologists have warned that surges in the numbers of teenagers and released prisoners, along with recent economic declines, threatened a return to rising crime.

We’re probably done seeing declines in crime rates for some time to come, said Jack Riley, director of the Public Safety and Justice Program at Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. The question is how strong and how fast will those rates be, and what kind of tools do we have at our disposal to get ahead of the curve.

The FBI survey does not provide details about specific suburbs, although crime reports in suburban areas overall were up 2.2 percent. Regionally, only the Northeast showed a drop in crime. The largest increase was in western states, followed by the South and Midwest, the FBI said.

The deaths from the Sept. 11 attacks were excluded from the FBI tallies. If those deaths were counted as homicides, the FBI said, the number of murders would have increased by 26 percent from 2000.

Criminologists are divided over what causes crime rates to increase, though most believe that economics and demographics play crucial roles. Riley and other crime experts said last year’s resurgence can be explained at least in part by a stagnant economy.

In addition, the number of inmates released from state and federal prisons last year rose to more than 600,000 as many convicted during the crack-cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s returned to the streets, according to federal estimates. Police officials are also concerned about an ongoing increase in the teenage population, which has historically been the age group most likely to commit crimes.

The great 1990s crime drop ended with the 1990s; the new millennium brings a different picture, said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. This tells us we can’t be complacent about crime levels. We have to re-intensify our efforts.

Most of the crime increase in 2001 was driven by jumps in various property crimes -- led by car thefts at 6 percent -- while the overall number of violent crimes rose by less than 1 percent.

But every category except aggravated assault showed an increase, and crime experts said the rises in murders and robberies were particularly alarming because of the severe impact they have on neighborhoods and communities.

Homicides increased sharply in many U.S. cities last year, including a jump of 67 percent in Boston and double-digit percentage spikes in Houston, Atlanta, St. Louis and Phoenix, to name a few. Murders also increased at smaller rates in Chicago and Los Angeles but continued to decline in New York when those slain in the World Trade Center attack are not included.

The uptick in crime documented by the FBI is already being seized upon by some Democrats on Capitol Hill trying to fend off cuts in federal aid to local police departments.

The Bush administration has proposed several reductions in grants and other assistance to state and local law enforcement agencies, including an 80 percent drop in funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services program. The Clinton administration initiative, which aimed to provide funding for 100,000 police officers, has been popular with many local governments but has been criticized by some Republicans as ineffective.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), who has sponsored legislation to increase COPS funding from the Bush proposal, said the new crime statistics underscore the need for federal support of local crime-fighting efforts.

Crime is like cutting grass, said Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary crime and drugs subcommittee. Just because you cut it down doesn’t mean it’s going to stay there. . . . We have to increase our commitment to local law enforcement.