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New Crime Data Has Experts Concerned

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It's been a strange couple of years for criminologists. In some cities, crime went up, and others down. And still others, crime is gone up and down. Overall, the police are worried. The last time there was this kind of volatility, it was right before the big crime wave of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN: For two decades, crime skyrocketed and then steadily declined. The country moved together in a nice, succinct pattern, and crime graphs were all very tidy. One box, a big mountain in the middle. Then two years ago, the charts got messy. They look more like a connect the dots game than graphs.

Mr. JIM LYNCH (John Jay College of Criminal Justice): It's very bizarre.

SULLIVAN: Jim Lynch is a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He says historically, cities in flux mean something big is coming.

Mr. LYNCH: Well, we're into the middling years. Things are sort of unstable and waiting.

SULLIVAN: It sounds like you're saying we're all just waiting for the other shoe to drop?

Mr. LYNCH: Well, you can be sure that there will be a shoe.

SULLIVAN: But just what the shoe will look like or how big it will be no one can say for sure. A hint came last week when the FBI released preliminary crime numbers for the first half of 2006. For the second year in a row, overall violent crime rose. Not everywhere, but in enough places to tip the scale. Murder was up nationally one and a half percent. Robbery increased nine percent.

Chief CHARLES RAMSEY (Washington, D.C., Police Department): It certainly doesn't look good with what we're starting to see in cities across America.

SULLIVAN: Charles Ramsey is chief of police in Washington D.C. He called a crime emergency this summer and flooded the streets with 600 extra officers working overtime when 13 people were murdered in 15 days.

Chief RAMSEY: Homicide, robberies, sexual assaults, juvenile crime. It's a disturbing trend because it's happening in so many cities. We saw the same thing the first half of the year, but we were very aggressive about going after it to try to reverse it.

SULLIVAN: A number of criminologists gathered in New York recently to figure out what might be going on. Alfred Blumstein from Carnegie Melon University, says you don't have to look much farther than the last crime wave that started in the mid-‘80s.

Professor ALFRED BLUMSTEIN (Carnegie Melon University): And the rise was attributable entirely to violence by young people with handguns.

SULLIVAN: Here's what happened, according to Blumstein and many others. Crime started out pretty high in the late ‘70s and then dropped. This was likely the result of baby boomers calming age. Then, just as things were looking nice and peaceful, came crack, and with it, open street warfare.

As police stepped in to arrest dealers in the late ‘80s, younger dealers in their teens moved in to fill the void, and that actually made things worse.

Professor BLUMSTEIN: Because the young people were a heck of a lot more dangerous with the guns they were carrying than the people who they replaced. Young people just don't have that restraint that their older predecessors had.

SULLIVAN: Blumstein says the crack market stabilized years ago, but the handguns are still a problem.

Professor BLUMSTEIN: The concern that we have now is that we're seeing violence in a number of cities where it's predominantly young people with handguns shooting other young people.

SULLIVAN: A growing number of experts believe there may also be pockets of poverty, even deeper than there were in the early 1990s, combined with fewer job opportunities. And there's something else, returning prisoners.

Chief JERRY DYER (Fresno Police Department): Prisoner reentry has been a thorn in law enforcement side and the side of the community for many years.

SULLIVAN: Chief Jerry Dyer heads the Fresno, California, Police Department. He says he's been able to keep crime down in his city by keeping an eye on inmates as they come home.

Chief DYER: Individuals that are getting out of prison that are going back into their same neighborhoods. Not only are they committing crimes, but they're recruiting others to commit crimes with them. They're the ones that are recruiting youngsters into gangs.

SULLIVAN: Many of those people were caught up in the crack wars of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Most received sentences of 15 to 20 years. You can do that math. The Justice Department says two-thirds of released inmates return to prison within three years for committing new crimes.

That's been a problem in Providence, Rhode Island, says Dean Esserman, the police chief there. At the same time, he says federal money has been cut and the number of police officers on the street is shrinking.

Chief DEAN ESSERMAN (Providence Police Department): There are not more than a handful of police departments in America today that have as many police officers on duty as they did on September 11th. But since September 11th, they are being asked to do something they never were asked to do before, which is to get involved in homeland defense.

SULLIVAN: Police officials like Dean Esserman are eager to see how the second half of 2006 shaped up. The FBI is expected to release that report in the spring.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.