Crime fell 4.4 percent nationwide in the first half of 2009 with the murder rate dropping a startling 10 percent, according to statistics released Monday by the FBI. The decline in murders is one of the more significant one-time decreases in recent memory, according to some criminologists.
Crime rates have been dropping since 2007, following a run up in violent crime during the middle part of the decade. FBI figures for 2005 showed that violent crime had increased 2.5 percent overall, one of the largest percentage increases in 15 years. Overall crime in the United States increased 3.7 percent in 2006.
Criminologists and law enforcement officials believe the crime increases in those years had been triggered by a rise in gang activity, violent offenders returning from prison and children who have easy access to guns. In 2007 the uptick in violent crime had reversed, declining 0.7 percent and continuing into 2008 with the overall violent crime rate dropping 1.9 percent.
Crime was increasing in some smaller non-metropolitan counties, however, with robberies up 3.8 percent and arsons rising 1.2 percent.
Professor James Alan Fox , a criminologist at Northeastern University, said police have been more targeted in recent years on repeat offenders and high-crime areas, often using computers. Authorities have also utilized technology in cities such as crime mapping and the ShotSpotter, a gunfire detection system which allows police to rapidly respond to incidents.
Fox also cited increasing proliferation of surveillance cameras in urban areas, allowing police to better track and identify crime suspects.
"Police certainly are much more strategic," Fox said. "But also we continue to put large numbers of people in prison for long periods of time…and the nation continues to age." The segment of the population over age 50 is the fastest growing, according to Fox, and that group tends to commit fewer crimes.
A drop in crime in major cities is likely what is influencing the national numbers. In Washington, D.C., for example, the murder rate fell to its lowest in the last two decades. This year to date there have been 135 homicides in the district compared with 183 at this time last year, a 26 percent drop. New York City had 440 murders compared with 497 a year earlier, a decline of 11.5 percent. In Los Angeles for the year the murder rate is down 19 percent.
Violent crime and aggravated assault decreased in major cities with over 1 million residents, dropping 7 percent and 6.2 percent, respectively.
Although the preliminary numbers are encouraging for law enforcement officials the FBI noted in its release, "We do, however, caution against drawing conclusions from our data by making direct comparisons between law enforcement agencies — valid assessments are possible only with careful study and analysis of the range of unique conditions affecting each local law enforcement jurisdiction."
The FBI's crime statistics for the entire year of 2009 data will be released next year.