WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More murders and robberies in 2006 sent U.S. violent crimes higher for the second straight year, the FBI said on Monday, with the increase blamed on gangs, youth violence, gun crimes and fewer police on beats.
The FBI reported that the number of violent crimes nationwide went up by 1.3 percent last year, following a 2.3 percent increase in 2005. That had been the first rise in four years and the biggest percentage gain in 15 years.
The report showed that murders in big cities jumped last year by 6.7 percent. Robberies, an important indicator of crime trends, increased 6 percent nationwide.
Cities with big increases in the number of murders included Orlando and Miami in Florida; Oakland and San Diego in California; Phoenix, Arizona; Corpus Christi, Texas; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Reno, Nevada and Little Rock, Arkansas.
Even though the higher violent crime numbers had been expected, they still represented bad news for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who has targeted violent crime as a top priority.
“Any increase is still of concern and the reason why the attorney general has acted to expand federal efforts to combat violent crime,” said U.S. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.
A department study released last month of 18 metropolitan areas cited more violence by local gangs or street crews, more guns in the hands of criminals and younger, more violent offenders as key reasons for the rising crime rates.
Criminologists agreed with those reasons and also said there are fewer police on the beat. They cited the Bush administration’s emphasis on fighting terrorism since the September 11 attacks and funding cuts for programs to put more police officers on the street.
“The fact that we are seeing these increases several years in a row should be a wake-up call,” said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston.
“There’s a tendency to think the sky is falling. It’s not,” said Fox, noting the increases have been relatively small. “We’re not talking about an epidemic here.”
David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the crime problems appear to be spreading to medium-sized and smaller cities.
He said the emergence of deadly drug crews or street gangs can profoundly affect a city’s homicide or gun assault rate.
Lawrence Sherman, director of a criminology center at the University of Pennsylvania, called it an unusual pattern that murder is going up in some big cities, but down in others.
One possible explanation is that some police departments are doing much more to catch people illegally carrying concealed weapons, he said.
U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, criticized the Bush administration’s policies and said, “It’s time to get back to crime-fighting basics -- that means more cops on the streets, equipped with the tools and resources they need to keep our neighborhoods safe.”
In the FBI report, murders nationwide increased overall by 0.3 percent. The increase in big cities was nearly offset by declines in non-metropolitan areas.
In the violent crime category, burglaries and murders increased nationwide while the number of rapes declined by nearly 2 percent and aggravated assaults fell slightly.
Violent crime went up in every region of the country except for the Northeast. The largest increase occurred in the West at 2.8 percent.
Burglaries and arsons increased while motor vehicle theft and larcenies and thefts decreased.
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