FBI - Total crime down, murders and rapes up

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Murders rose sharply last year in suburban communities, and rapes were up in midsized cities, the FBI said Monday. Still, overall crimes against people and property declined slightly.

Cape Girardeau police chief Steve Strong questioned crime statistics for his city that were listed on the Missouri State Highway Patrol Web site.

The Web site showed uniform crime report statistics -- the same ones the FBI uses -- which showed forcible rapes in Cape Girardeau jumped from 7 to 16 from 2001 to 2002.

But Strong said his department's own figures show rapes increased from 6 to 9. "We're talking small numbers here," he said.

In all, the number of violent crimes in Cape Girardeau increased from 59 to 62, a 5 percent increase, Strong said. Property crimes -- burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson -- actually decreased from 2,516 in 2001 to 2,117 in 2002, a 16 percent drop, Strong said.

Strong said Monday that he couldn't explain the various discrepanies with the statistics on the Web site, but suggested that it may be a computer glitch.

Strong said the police department compiles the crime statistics and electronically reports them to the highway patrol.

Nationwide, the biggest percentage increases in murders were recorded in suburban counties, up 12.4 percent, the FBI's preliminary crime statistics for 2002 showed. Murders declined 1.2 percent in rural counties and 14.7 percent in cities with fewer than 10,000 people.

Cape Girardeau reported one murder in 2002. Scott City and Cape Girardeau County had two. Scott County reported four murders.

Some city problems are spilling over into adjacent suburbs that have become more urbanized, said David Muhlhausen, a criminal justice expert with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "The distinctions between cities and suburbs are sort of blurred now," he said.

'Statistical blips'

But Penn State University professor Darrell Steffensmeier said rates continue to be so low in suburban areas that just a slight increase in murders could cause a huge percentage jump.

"The homicide rate is very small, you have statistical blips," said Steffensmeier, a professor of sociology and crime, law and justice.

Overall, the FBI report showed a 0.2 percent decrease in the number of crimes reported to the police or other law enforcement agencies over the previous year, continuing a decade-long trend. Last year had been the only year since 1991 that crime rose over the preceding 12 months.

The FBI statistics showed a continued decrease in violent crime, by 1.4 percent in 2002 as compared with 2001. But the number of reported rapes rose by 4 percent and the number of murders grew by 0.8 percent, the FBI said.

The largest increase in rapes was reported in small and medium-sized cities. Cities of less than 10,000 people and cities with between 100,000 and 250,000 people reported increases of more than 7 percent in rapes.

Jamie Zuieback, a spokeswoman for the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network, a Washington-based group that runs a national rape hotline and provides other services to victims of sexual assault, said women appear to be more willing to report rapes. Several high-profile incidents, such as the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping in Salt Lake City, the increased use of DNA to convict suspects and educational campaigns have all encouraged women to come forward, Zuieback said.

"Our suspicion is absolutely this reflects an increase in reporting," Zuieback said. "We have certainly seen an incredible amount of attention to sexual assault in the news. We've seen a number of very high-profile cases."

The figures in the preliminary Uniform Crime Report released Monday should be considered good news, said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University.

With financially plagued cities laying off police officers and switching others to homeland security, with people losing their jobs because of ongoing economic problems, and with increases in gang activity, overall crime could easily be going up rather than down, Fox said.

"The fact that it isn't is a success," he said. "We're holding our own despite difficult times that we're in."

The biggest decline in overall crime -- 3.3 percent -- was reported in the Northeast. The West was the only region to report an increase -- 2.9 percent.

Experts said Los Angeles, the largest city in the West, accounted for much of the increase. Murders there grew by 12 percent to 654 last year. City officials blamed the jump on increased gang violence. In New York City, the nation's most populous city, homicides dropped from 660 in 2001 to 590 in 2002, contributing to the Northeast's crime reduction.

Southeast Missourian staff writer Mark Bliss contributed to this story.

On the Net

Crime report: www.fbi.gov

Missouri State Highway Patrol: www.mshp.state.mo.us

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