Murder rate up in several U.S. cities for 2006
NEW YORK --Murder rates climbed this year in New York and many American cities, some to their highest rates in a decade after many years of decline.
Officials blamed street gangs and the availability of illegal guns, while many said there was no way to know for sure why so many more crimes occurred.
In New York City, where the city reported 579 murders through Dec. 24 -- a 9.8 percent increase -- the spike comes from an unusually large number of crimes known as reclassified homicides, where victims are shot or stabbed years ago, but did not die until this year.
Thirty-five deaths so far this year are linked to old wounds, compared with an annual average of about a dozen.
Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said the increase would still be about 6 percent from the 2005 total of 539 murders, which was the city's lowest rate in more than 40 years.
"There'd still be an increase," Browne said said. "It's against a base that's one of the lowest in history."
Browne blamed the uptick on the availability of guns, particularly coming from out of state. The city has filed suit this year against dozens of out-of-state gun shops that it says are responsible for many illegal weapons that end up in New York.
In Chicago, murders through the first 11 months of the year were up 3.3 percent compared with the same period in 2005, reversing a four-year decline. A police spokeswoman said gang violence has been a contributing factor.
The increases have affected cities of all sizes in the country.
In New Haven, Conn., there were 24 homicides as of Wednesday, compared with 15 homicides in both 2004 and 2005. New Haven Police Chief Francisco Ortiz said that about half of this year's crimes involve young people choosing to settle disputes with guns instead of fists.
"They're all struggling with this thing about respect and pride," Ortiz said. "It's about respect. It's about revenge. It's about having a reputation. It's about turf and it's about girls."
Houston police attribute the surge of residents fleeing Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast to the 15 percent increase in the homicide rate.
"So we expect that to settle," Houston Police Lt. Murray Smith said. "We're hoping it will go down."
New Orleans, with its post-Katrina exodus, is the only major U.S. city that saw a sharp decline in the number of murders.
There were 154 murders in New Orleans this year as of Monday, said police spokesman Sgt. Jeffrey Johnson, down from 210 in 2005 and. But the city was largely empty during the fall and winter of 2005-2006 and even now has roughly half of its pre-Katrina population of just under 455,000.
Some cities, like Cincinnati, Ohio, posted their highest numbers ever while other cities had their highest rates in years.
Oakland, Calif., had 148 homicides for 2006 as of Wednesday, up 57 percent from last year and the highest in more than a decade. Philadelphia's 2006 homicide total was 403 as of Wednesday, the first time the number has topped 400 in nearly a decade. There were 380 in all of 2005.
Philadelphia officials have struggled all year to find ways to reduce the violence. In July, Mayor John F. Street gave a televised address in which he begged for a halt to the killings and asked young people to "lay down your weapons. Do it now. Choose education over violence."
A few cities reported slight decreases in the murder rate. Los Angeles' rate dropped about 3.7 percent to 464 homicides through Dec. 23. San Francisco's rate fell about 15 percent. San Francisco Police Sgt. Steve Mannina said the drop is partly due to increased patrols in violence-prone areas and more overtime approved by the police chief.
The FBI compiles crime statistics but does not release national numbers until several months after the end of the year. The bureau's statistics for the first six months of 2006 show an increase of 1.4 percent in the number of murders in the first half of 2006 compared with the first six months of 2005.
Andrew Karmen, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York, said that while there are various theories for why the murder rate dropped in New York and other cities in the 1990s, no one knows for sure why it happened -- and if it is going up again, no one knows the reason for that either.
He noted that police departments tend to take credit when the murder rate goes down.
"When crime goes up it will be interesting to see whether they will accept responsibility," Karmen said.