Violent crime in large U.S. cities dropped 8 percent in 1995, leading the way for a smaller but less dramatic decline across the nation, the FBI reports.
The bureau’s annual crime survey also shows the lowest murder rate in a decade - and the lowest overall violent crime rate since 1989.
The survey, released Saturday, was compiled from crimes reported to more than 16,000 law-enforcement agencies covering 95 percent of the nation’s population.
With crime an issue in the presidential campaign, President Clinton quickly claimed credit for the decrease.
“Our anti-crime strategy - to put more police on the street while working to get drugs, gangs and guns out of our neighborhoods - is working,” he said.
Christina Martin, campaign spokesman for Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole, said, “Clinton’s words of self-congratulation are a shallow attempt to divert attention from the massive increase in teen drug use under his watch.”
Alfred Blumstein, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, said, “The crime decline is much more by local policing, local culture and factors in the community rather than national policy.”
He said big cities have been successful because they acted vigorously “in getting guns out of the hands of kids, using a variety of tactics.”
Blumstein added, however, that “you have to give credit to additional resources in policing, the emphasis in community policing. To that extent, the president can make a claim for having contributed to it.”
Criminologists, meanwhile, say it is very difficult to pinpoint the causes of crime.
They also said crime rates are often influenced by demographic forces beyond any government control, particularly the gradual aging of the baby boom generation.
“They are maturing out of the crime-prone age group into a more mellow middle age,” said Jack Levin, director of the Program for the Study of Violence and Social Conflict at Northeastern University in Boston. “In the second place, they seem to be supervising their children who are growing into the crime-prone age group.”
Clinton has often touted his anti-crime law designed to place 100,000 additional police officers on the streets.
Clinton also backed the Brady law, which requires a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases.
Republicans said that the crime bill has so far produced less than 20,000 actual officers, and that local governments will eventually have to pick up the tab for them.
They also support “instant checks” for gun buyers, though the technology for a nationwide system is not yet there.
Attorney General Janet Reno attributed the improvement to “many different causes, including our bipartisan efforts to give local law enforcement the tools they need to combat crime.”
Reno warned, however: “This is no time to rest on our laurels. Crime is still too high.”
During the Oct. 6 presidential debate, Dole said most of the drop in crime could be attributed to the success in New York City, where drops in crime rates have approached 30 percent in recent years. A similar argument has been made by crime policy analyst John J. DiIulio, Jr.
“Throw New York City out of the equation and the national picture is not nearly as good as this report makes out,” DiIulio said.
“You have, in historic terms, extremely high levels of crime.”
In Washington, explanations for falling crime rates tend to have political overtones. Edwin Meese, who served as attorney general under President Ronald Reagan, cited the traditionally Republican emphasis on more punishment.
“More people have been put in prison,” Meese said.
“Habitual criminals have been put in prison for longer periods of time. Those kinds of sentences are starting to have an effect.”
Levin, the Northeastern University criminologist, cited a more philosophical reason for the recent success in fighting crime: “Zero tolerance.”
“As a society we are sick and tired and fed up with being victims of crime,” Levin said. “I’ve thought for a long time now we’re in the midst of a cultural revolution in this country, but we just haven’t realized it.”
The findings for 1995 showed an 8 percent drop in violent crimes for a second consecutive year in the 1-million-plus cities: Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Dallas and Houston.
Violent crimes include murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
Nationally, the number of violent crimes dropped 3 percent as the rate of violent crimes per 100,000 population declined 4 percent.
The number of crimes covered in the FBI’s reporting system was 13.9 million in 1995, representing 5,278 offenses for every 100,000 inhabitants.
The number of reported crimes of all types was down 1 percent from a year earlier, while the crime rate declined 2 percent per 100,000, the study said.
Other key figures from the report:
There were 21,597 murders reported in 1995, 7 percent lower than 1994 and 13 percent below 1991. The murder rate was 8 per 100,000 population. By race, 49 percent of the victims were black, 48 percent white.
Also, the number of people murdered by strangers continued to grow. More than half, or 55 percent of murder victims, were killed by strangers or persons unknown, compared with less than half in 1990.
Among female murder victims, 26 percent were slain by husbands or boyfriends. Wives or girlfriends killed 3 percent of male victims.
The 97,464 forcible rapes reported to law enforcement, the fewest since 1989, represented a 5 percent drop.
The recent decline is “good news, but it’s far too early to celebrate,” said James A. Fox, dean of the college of criminal justice at Northeastern University.
“We are not winning the war against crime,” Fox said.
“One of the reasons the crime rate is so far down is because it went so high” in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the nation struggled to cope with the explosion of crack cocaine and its accompanying violence.
“The peak is now coming down to a more normal level.”