Dec. 18, 2006 -- FBI data for the first six months of 2006 show that violent crime in the United States has increased 3.7 percent.
The most significant jump was in robberies, which rose to 9.7 percent. There was a 1.4 percent increase in the murder rate and a 1.2 percent increase in the rate of aggravated assault. FBI figures for 2005 showed that violent crime had increased 2.5 percent overall, one of the largest percentage increases in 15 years.
Criminologists and law enforcement officials said the crime wave has been triggered by a rise in gang activity, violent offenders who returned from prison and kids who have easy access to guns.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, told ABC News recently, "What we began to pick up in 2005, which was the single highest percentage increase in violent crime in 13 years, has continued into 2006 in three areas -- aggravated assault, robbery and homicide."
Midsize cities, such as Sacramento, Memphis and Cincinnati, have been hit the hardest. Robberies are up in almost all cities, but most troubling is an 8.4 percent increase in homicide in cities with populations of 500,000 to just under a million.
A disturbing factor for 2006 is that even communities with relatively low crime in recent years have seen dramatic increases, some in part because of drug traffickers exploiting areas they have not been known to operate in before and the emergence of gangs in new communities and cities.
A 2005 FBI threat assessment on gangs noted, "Violent street gangs now affect public safety, community image and quality of life in communities of all sizes in urban, suburban and rural areas. No region of the United States is untouched by gangs. Gangs affect society at all levels, causing heightened fears for safety, violence. ..."
The FBI, which established the National Gang Intelligence Center to learn about the threat and movement of gangs, has found that gangs -- especially Latino gangs like the notoriously violent MS-13, Latin Kings and Los Sureños -- have migrated across the United States to smaller cities.
"Based on what information we have, there is a correlation with those gangs and a migration of immigrant workers. ... They feel more comfortable being in their own communities," said FBI Acting Deputy Assistant Director A.J. Turner at the Bureau's Criminal Investigative Division.
The FBI threat assessment noted that gangs have moved across the United States, and as they migrate they tend to bring more crime to the areas they become established in.
"New communities will feel the impact of gangs in their neighborhoods and will see the slow erosion of safe havens for their children. Gangs will move into jurisdictions where law enforcement may have less knowledge of their activities and culture, and may not have the support to combat them."
Turner explained why the gangs are migrating to certain cities. "By moving in with the local immigrant population, they have a lower profile with law enforcement. … They are often involved in a myriad of criminal activity quite often drug trafficking ... and robberies."
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University, said that gangs are a problem, since they attract minority children who "seek the gangs for protection and status."
Experts also said that an overall decrease in funding for police work also played a part. The Justice Department has cut funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services grant program from $1.1 billion in 2002 to $478 million in fiscal year 2006.
At a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, FBI Director Robert Mueller was questioned about why violent crime was only No. 8 on the FBI's top 10 priorities list.
Mueller explained to Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., that the top priorities for the FBI are protecting against terrorism and other national security threats. But Feinstein said that violent crime is a bigger issue than white collar crime or public corruption, which are ranked above violent crime.
"Gangs are killing more people in this country than organized crime ever did or ever will, and that's just a fact. And they're spreading all across the country. They're being operated out of prisons. It is an extraordinarily serious problem. And I think to have this on a low level is a big mistake," she said.
Mueller responded, "I think our priorities are appropriately aligned, although I would very much appreciate additional resources be put into the violent crime arena."
Fox noted that there has been a drop in the number of police officers per capita from 2000 to 2005; he said this is especially true in cities with populations greater than 250,000, where the police presence on the streets is 10 percent less than five years ago.
Although budgets are tight, top officials at the Justice Department worried about the figures and called the numbers "troubling."
In response to the FBI crime statistics, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse talked about Attorney General Gonzales' initiative for safer communities, announced in October. Through this initiative, Roehrkasse explained, Justice Department teams are visiting 18 cities around the country "to meet with state and local law enforcement agencies to find out what is causing this increase and to determine which crime-fighting efforts are most effective."