Murder Rate Drops to 33-Year Low

The U.S. murder rate last year hit the lowest level since 1966 as the number of serious crimes committed nationwide fell for the eighth year in a row, the FBI said today.

In its 422-page report detailing final U.S. crime statistics for 1999, the FBI said the murder count stood at 15,533 last year, or one murder every 34 minutes.

The murder rate worked out to six murders for every 100,000 U.S. inhabitants, the lowest level since 1966 when there were 5.7 murders for every 100,000 people.

The overall violent crime rate sank to a 21-year low — 525 murders, rapes, robberies and assaults for every 100,000 residents. The last time the figure was lower — 498 in 1978 — came well before an epidemic of crack cocaine sent violent crime soaring in the mid-1980s.

Crime Reduction Rate Slowdown

The FBI report contained a hint that big gains against crime may be about to slow down.

Big cities with more than 1 million residents showed the smallest decline in murder rate of any size community, down just 4 percent from 13.5 to 13 per 100,000. The largest, New York, even saw murders rise, from 633 in 1998 to 671 in 1999.

“The big cities are reaching their limit” in crime reduction, said professor James Alan Fox of Northeastern University in Boston. The murder totals are considered the most reliable figures in the FBI report and a leading general indicator of crime.

“The big cities were the first to go up in the 1980s, the first to come down in the 1990s,” said professor Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “Now, having the lowest murder rate decline suggests they’ll be the first to stabilize. Murders and crime can’t go down forever.”

Serious Crimes Fell 20 Percent

Nationwide, the rate and the number of all seven major violent and property crimes declined, despite an increase in the U.S. population, the FBI reported.

The national total for the seven serious crimes reported to 17,000 police agencies around the nation was 11,635,149 in 1999, down 20 percent since 1990. The number of reported crimes was down 10 percent in the West, 7 percent in the Northeast and Midwest and 5 percent in the South. The totals were down 7 percent in cites and rural areas and 8 percent in suburbs.

Among violent crimes, the population-adjusted rate for murder fell 8.5 percent; for robbery, 8.4 percent; for aggravated assault, 6.2 percent; and for rape, 4.3 percent.

Among property crimes, the rate for burglary fell 10 percent; for auto theft, 7.7 percent, and for larceny-theft, 5.7 percent.

The federal law enforcement agency calculated in its so-called crime clock that there was one robbery every minute, one rape every six minutes, and one burglary every 15 seconds in 1999.

Democrats, Republicans Claim Credit

The overall decline extended a trend begun in 1992 that is now almost three times longer than the second-longest decline, the three years from 1982 through 1984. FBI records go back through 1960.

The nation’s longest and steepest rise in crime totals — increases of 10.2 percent to 13.8 percent from 1965 through 1969 — came as postwar baby boomers reached the crime-prone ages of 15 to 25 and may finally be undone by current trends, Blumstein said.

Attorney General Janet Reno said, “American families are safer today than they have been in a generation. … But we cannot rest.” She advocated more work to ensure that the 500,000 Americans to be released from prison this year end up in jobs rather than back behind bars.

President Clinton attributed crime declines to administration legislation giving local communities “better tools … including 100,000 more police for our streets, stronger gun laws and smart prevention.”

Republicans in Congress credited local efforts and a GOP-sponsored law they said induced 27 states to impose longer prison terms in exchange for federal money to build prisons.

Academic experts credited both parties’ favorite anti-crime remedies but also factors beyond control of politicians, like the aging of baby boomers past crime-prone years. They also cited the decline of crack cocaine and the violent gangs that sold it, an increase in community-based prevention programs, police targeting of illegal weapons and a better economy.

Math Problems With Rates

Fox and Blumstein found math problems and mistakes in the FBI report.

The FBI said the risk for older black Americans being murdered declined by 130 percent. “A decrease of 100 percent brings you down to zero murders,” Blumstein noted. “Over 100 percent means negative murders, and there’s not a lot of resurrection around.”

The FBI’s James Noonan acknowledged: “It should say the risk was 130 percent higher in 1978; the decline since is around 50 percent.”

Fox pointed out “a horribly misleading example of rounding” in the FBI’s statement that firearms rose from accounting for 6 of 10 murders to 7 of 10 — which seems like a 16.6 percent increase. The unrounded rise was from 6.48 to 6.52 — “a statistically insignificant 0.4 percent increase,” Fox said.

The FBI’s Carlos Davis agreed: “The rounding is deceptive. We should not have made that comparison.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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