WASHINGTON—Every type of violent crime fell last year with one notable exception: Murders were up for the fourth straight year, according to an annual FBI report released Monday.
After reaching a low point in 1999 of about 15,500 homicides, the number has crept up steadily since then to more than 16,500 in 2003—or almost six murders for every 100,000 U.S. residents.
That was a 1.7 percent increase from 2002 and a jump of more than 6 percent since 1999. Still, the latest figure was 29 percent lower than the homicides in 1994.
James Alan Fox, criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, said the recent rise in murders is partly traceable to an upsurge in urban youth gang violence. The FBI report indicates there were 819 juvenile gang killings last year, compared with 580 in 1999.
“It’s quite clear that at least in terms of homicide, the great 1990s crime drop is officially over and has been for some time,” Fox said. “While this does not signal any epidemic of homicide in this country, we cannot ignore what has happened in the past few years.”
The 1.4 million total violent crimes reported to law enforcement agencies in 2003—murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault—marked a 3 percent drop from the year before. Aggravated assaults, which make up two-thirds of all violent crimes, have dropped for 10 straight years.
The Bush administration seized on the more positive numbers—overall violent crime is down 3.1 percent since 1999—as evidence that its law enforcement policies are working.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said factors in the reduction include stepped-up federal prosecution of gun crimes, arrest of more drug offenders and longer prison sentencing policies for repeat offenders.
“All across our country, law-abiding Americans are enjoying unprecedented safety,” Ashcroft said.
Democrats, however, said the uptick in murders and the increase in juvenile gang slayings over the past four years show that much more needs to be done. Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards said more money is needed for gang prevention, the COPS program that provides grants for new police officers and other anti-crime initiatives.
The FBI statistics, Edwards said, “remind us how much more we have to do to fight crime and keep our communities safe in America.”
The report showed more than two-thirds of last year’s murders were committed with a firearm, roughly the same portion as every year since 1999. Americans for Gun Safety, a nonpartisan advocacy group, said that demonstrated the government’s inability to stop criminals from obtaining guns.
“It’s not surprising that we’ve made little dent in the rate of violent crimes committed with firearms, because criminals continue to get easy access to guns,” said Casey Anderson, the group’s executive director.
Despite the criticism, crime is no longer a hot political issue thanks to the long-term decrease. President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry rarely mention it in their campaign speeches and polls indicate few voters rank crime as a top concern facing the country.
“I don’t think it’s all good news. There are clearly some areas where we need to get back to work,” Fox said.
The FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Reporting Program statistics largely mirror those of other government studies that show crime at historically low levels. The Justice Department’s annual survey of crime victims, released in September, found the nation’s crime rate at its lowest point since such studies began in 1973.
The 2003 FBI report translates to a rate of 475 violent crimes for every 100,000 Americans, a 3.9 percent decrease from the previous year.
Property crimes such as burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft dropped slightly, with the overall total of 10.4 million crimes in 2003 representing a decline of less than 1 percent.
The property crime rate for 2003 was 3,588 crimes per 100,000 Americans, a 1.2 percent decline. Property crime is down 14 percent overall since 1994.
The FBI report is based on crime statistics submitted by 17,000 state and local law enforcement agencies around the country. The report also showed that:
—Violent crime in cities dropped 3.9 percent compared with 2002 and 3.7 percent in less populated areas.
—Excluding traffic stops, law enforcement agencies made 13.6 million arrests in 2003, or about 4,695 arrests for every 100,000 Americans. In 2003, those agencies solved about 46 percent of violent crimes, including about 62 percent of murders.
—Property crimes cost victims about $17 billion last year, including $8.6 billion in motor vehicle thefts.
—There were 7,489 hate crimes reported in 2003, with intimidation and vandalism the most frequent. That is almost identical to the 7,462 hate crimes reported in 2002.