Newly released FBI data show the number of murders in the U.S. rose nearly 11 percent last year and violent crime increased by nearly 4 percent, but crime researchers said homicides and other violence still remain at low rates compared with a crime wave from 20 years ago.
Seven cities are largely responsible for the increase in murders last year, according to John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University who closely follows crime: Baltimore; Chicago; Houston; Washington, D.C.; Milwaukee; Philadelphia; and Kansas City, Mo. That pattern has not held steady into 2016, as homicides in some places, including Baltimore and Washington, D.C., have dropped.
The FBI says firearms were used in more than 70 percent of the murders last year.
Pfaff noted on Twitter, "The number of rapes is less than in 2009, the number of robberies less than in ... 2013, and assaults less than in 2010. Still quite safe."
But for the Justice Department, the rise in homicides and some other violent crime compared with 2014 is getting plenty of attention.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, speaking in Arkansas on Monday at a meeting on targeting trouble in urban centers, said violence "tears at the fabric of our common life." She added that any such increase "is of the deepest concern ... to the entire Department of Justice." Federal authorities blasted out a series of news releases announcing grant awards to communities to enhance the sharing of information about illegally purchased weapons and other crime-fighting measures.
The issue of law and order has been a persistent theme in this year's presidential race, as Republican candidate Donald Trump has urged the need to restore order to U.S. cities, and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, has emphasized the need for partnerships between law enforcement and communities of color. The new FBI crime data could become a topic during their first presidential debate Monday night in New York.
The Fair Punishment Project, a center based at Harvard Law School, pointed out that the country is "safer under President Obama than under any other President in over a half-century."
"No year during George W. Bush's, Bill Clinton's, George H.W. Bush's or Ronald Reagan's presidency was as safe as 2015," according to a summary prepared by the project leaders. "Violent crime in the U.S. is near historic lows and the country is dramatically safer than it was 45 years ago, 25 years ago, and 10 years ago."
FBI Director James Comey has been pushing for better ways to collect and analyze crime statistics from the nation's state and local police departments.
"Information that is accurate, reliable, complete and timely will help all of us learn where we have problems and how to get better," Comey said.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Murders in the U.S. increased nearly 11 percent in 2015 over the year before. This is part of an overall increase in violent crime for last year. The latest numbers from the FBI are out today, and NPR Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson has been looking into them. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What's the overall takeaway from this report?
JOHNSON: Ari, overall, violent crime increased about 4 percent in 2015 over the year before, but most worrisome is this pattern with regard to homicides. As you mentioned, murders are up about 11 percent. But mostly the FBI says that's because of changes in about seven big cities.
I talked with Fordham University Law Professor John Pfaff. He crunched the numbers, and his analysis says the rise in 2015 comes from Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Kansas City and finally Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
SHAPIRO: Now, this was a report of 2015 violent crime. And so far in 2016, the numbers in some of those cities are looking better, right?
JOHNSON: Yeah, these statistics can be kind of complicated. But what we know so far is that murders in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., so far this year, 2016 - those are down.
And crime, as you know, is local. And many of the violent crimes that we're seeing in some of these places are confined to a specific set of blocks or neighborhoods. So crime is not evenly apportioned throughout a city just like in Chicago where we're seeing pockets of crime there.
SHAPIRO: How does the crime picture in this report compare to what we saw, say, 20 years ago?
JOHNSON: So crime analysts now say overall the country's still pretty safe, a lot safer than it was back in the '80s and '90s. The FBI data today is still pretty much in line with what we saw for the earlier part of President Obama's tenure and nothing like the mayhem during the Bush and early Bill Clinton presidencies.
SHAPIRO: What's the federal government, the Justice Department doing about crime in some of these big cities?
JOHNSON: Again, crime is local, so the federal government doesn't have a whole lot of control here. But DOJ is trying to fund some programs - violence-reduction programs in some cities, bringing together some experts and police chiefs in cities where they have fought crime and mostly won.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced a new batch of federal grants today to pay for more intelligence sharing, to fight illegal guns. But that money from the federal government is generally a drop in the bucket compared to what states and local places spend.
SHAPIRO: Crime and punishment has been a big theme of the presidential race. How is this new data on crime likely to go over in that debate?
JOHNSON: Well, Donald Trump talks a lot on the campaign trail about wanting to restore law and order. He's been really critical of crime and violence in places like Chicago and some other big cities. And just last week he talked once again about wanting to bring back this practice of stop-and-frisk which has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in New York and is really hated by civil rights leaders because of how it targets black and Hispanic people indiscriminately. Trump, it's likely, could bring up these new FBI crime stats in tonight's debate.
On the other hand, Ari, Hillary Clinton has been a little more nuanced. She's been talking about how good work by police and community leaders has brought crime to near record lows over the last 20 years. But she says a lot more work needs to be done to fight illegal gun sales and do things like tighten up background checks.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR Justice Correspondent Carrie Johnson on new crime numbers from the FBI. Thanks, Carrie.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.