WASHINGTON – Both violent and property crimes declined in 2007 from the previous year, the FBI reported Monday. But one expert warned the figures could mask rising murder rates among young black men.
In preliminary figures for crimes reported to police, the bureau said the number of violent crimes declined by 1.4 percent from 2006, reversing two years of rising violent crime numbers. Violent crime had climbed 1.9 percent in 2006 and 2.3 percent in 2005, alarming federal and local officials.
Property crimes were down 2.1 percent last year, the largest drop in the last four years.
The largest declines were in vehicle theft, down 8.9 percent, rape, down 4.3 percent, and murder, down 2.7 percent.
The crime trends were not uniform. Murders, for instance, were down in cities of more than 250,000, including a 9.8 percent drop in cities of more than a million residents. But murders rose in some small cities – up 3.7 percent in cities of 50,000 to 100,000, up 1.9 percent in cities of 100,000 to 250,000, and up 1.8 percent in cities less than 10,000. Historically, national murder trends have begun in the largest cities and moved over several years to smaller ones.
Because the FBI preliminary figures do not contain the detailed age, race and gender breakdowns available in the final report later in the year, they may unintentionally mask a growing murder rate among black male teenagers and young adults, particularly with guns, said James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University.
“We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking our problems are over,” Fox said. He pointed out that from 2002 to 2006 the rate of murder committed by black male teens rose 52 percent.
“Violence is down among whites of all ages and both genders; it’s up among black males, not black females,” Fox said. “When you blend all the national numbers together you fail to see this divergence. There are many more whites in the population, so their decline can dwarf the increase among young black males.”
Fox said black males are “feeling the impact of the economic decline and an increase in gangs and illegal gun markets. Gangs and youth crime are a growing problem despite these rosy statistics.”
Professor Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University said overall national crime figures have been fairly stable with only small fluctuations since 2000. Gangs have re-emerged in various inner-city neighborhoods in recent years, Blumstein added, but they have not been the highly structured, almost-corporate entities like the Bloods and the Crips that spread out from Los Angeles in the 1970s.
The biggest changes in this report seem driven more by individual city variations than by regional or national trends, Blumstein said. The big murder decline in the biggest cities and in overall violent crime in the Northeast is substantially attributable to an enormous 17 percent drop in murders in New York City alone, from 596 in 2006 to 496 in 2007, he said.
“When you see a crime spike in a city, it’s very often attributable to young black males attacking other young black males,” Blumstein said. “The duration depends on how fast the city reacts, and the big cities have more resources and more sophistication about how to respond.”
In New York, police attribute the decline in murders to their Operation Impact, which floods high crime areas with officers, including some fresh from the academy. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg also credited “efforts to keep illegal guns out of the hands of criminals.”
Of 21 cities with more than 100 murders a year a few years ago, 13 saw murders rise in this report and 8 recorded declines, Blumstein said.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said, “One preliminary report does not make a trend, but it’s going the way we want it to go.” Kolko cautioned against attributing significance to any shift that hasn’t lasted at least two years.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr called the report “very encouraging” though he noted the final report could alter the figures.
But Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who chairs a Senate subcommittee on crime, said: “The decreases announced today are modest. There are nearly 1.4 million violent crimes and over 17,000 murders in America every year, and that’s simply too many. … The Bush administration has repeatedly ignored the needs of law enforcement, slashing overall funding for state and local law enforcement by billions.”
According to the preliminary report, other violent crimes tracked by FBI statistics – robbery and aggravated assault – were both down 1.2 percent.
Violent crimes dropped most in the Northeast, down 5.4 percent with 1.7 percent declines in both the Midwest and West. But they rose 0.7 percent in the South.
The West recorded a 4.7 percent decline in property crimes.