Murder Rate Up in U.S. Cities

Thursday, June 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A week after Mayor Marc Morial received a national award for overhauling the city police department and a coinciding drop in crime, two teen-agers were murdered after leaving a weekend party in an upscale neighborhood.

Four more people have been killed since then, the latest victims in a disturbing trend: There have been 110 murders in New Orleans this year, compared with 80 by the same time a year ago.

The bad news isn't limited to New Orleans. Selected checks of major cities, including Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia, found that murders are up over last year.

The increases follow a substantial drop in murder rates across the country during most of the last decade.

In May, the FBI said murder and other serious crimes reported to the police dropped for an eighth consecutive year in 1999, by far the longest-running crime decline on record. Murder was down 2 percent in cities over 500,000 and 8 percent overall.

Several leading criminal justice experts agreed that the public should no longer expect to see the same significant drops in the rate of violent crimes that occurred in the 1990s. But they were unsure whether this year's murder upswing is temporary or whether America's violent crime rate has reached its low point and will now increase.

``I call it the criminal justice limbo stick; at some point you can't go any lower,'' said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. ``Certain types of murder are way down ... but the issue of thrill and revenge motivation is still here and remains as American as apple pie and we have not seen an abatement of this type of violence.''

Steve Levitt, a University of Chicago economics professor who specializes in criminal justice issues, actually expects a long-term drop in violent crime. He said unabated prison growth has removed violent offenders from society and is serving as a deterrent.

Not all the news so far this year is bad. The murder rate for the first half of the year has dropped in some large cities, Denver and Phoenix among them, by as much as 28 percent.

But other experts aren't as optimistic as Levitt.

``Demography is working against us,'' said Fox, noting the number of people between 14 and 20 — considered crime-prone ages — is growing. ``If we don't pay attention, we could see youth violence so bad we'll look back on the 1990s and say, 'Those were the good old days.'''

When Morial took office in 1994, New Orleans had the nation's worst murder rate. That has fallen more than 50 percent since then, with 162 murders last year. At the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Seattle on June 10, Morial received the City Livability Award for turning things around.

But now New Orleans is on pace for 230 murders this year, the total in 1998. Police Superintendent Richard Pennington has blamed most of the killing on drug gangs.

The real question may be why the city's 1999 rate was so low, according to Al Blumstein, a criminal justice professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He said last year's tally was an anomaly.

Unlike Fox, Blumstein sees less of a threat posed by the growing population of young people. The crime rate for that age group has been falling at about 5 percent, he said, and he expects violent crime rates to level off.

``We've solved the easy stuff, now it's going to be a lot harder to go beyond that,'' he said.

None of the experts found evidence that the increase in some city murder rates is due to an economic slowdown.

Morgan Reynolds, a Texas A&M economics professor and director of criminal justice at the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, instead suggested that recent public embarrassments for police in Los Angeles and New York has left officers more gun shy about the way they treat suspects.

``We may be seeing something here in terms of temporary drop in police efficiency because of either morale, corruption or scandal,'' he said.