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Murder Rate Is Rising in the US

Experts stress need for social programs, but cost to cities is daunting

SHERIFF'S deputies arrived at 8:21 in the morning. They found the victim, Barbara Bohn, lying in the hallway of her home. Thus began another routine homicide investigation by Los Angeles County Sheriff's detectives, except this one carried a grim statistical footnote: It was the 425th killing within the Sheriff's Department's jurisdiction this year - one more than occurred in 1980, the record year for murders here. That was in November. Since then, there have been more than 24 other killings.

Urban America is starting the 1990s on a violent note.

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Driven by drugs, demographics, and the availability of more lethal weapons, the murder rate in the United States is rising after a pause in the 1980s.

The trend is prompting soul-searching in cities from Los Angeles to Boston. It is also raising an enduring question: Is the US, the most violent country in the industrialized world, becoming even more violent?

Some experts don't think so. They point out that other types of violent crime are down even though homicides are up.

``I think society on the whole is less violent,'' says James Wilson, a crime expert at the University of California Los Angeles.

Although year-end figures on violent crime in America won't be known for some time, early indications are sobering. Through the first six months of 1990, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reports that the number of murders in cities of 100,000 people or more grew 8 percent over the same period a year ago.

If that trend continues, the US this year will surpass the record murder rate set in 1980, when 23,040 people were killed, one every 23 minutes. A survey of some of the nation's largest cities reveals some disturbing and also some hopeful signs:

At least a dozen cities have already broken annual homicide records, including Boston, Phoenix, Dallas, New York, and Washington. Los Angeles may not set new highs, but Los Angeles County, which includes the city and areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Department, likely will.

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Several other cities - Denver, Chicago, Houston - are seeing substantial increases in murders even though they won't set records this year.

In two of the nation's toughest cities, Miami and Detroit, killings are down. Homicides in Philadelphia are up but overall crime is down 4 percent.

``This is only the beginning of a crime wave in the 1990s,'' says James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. Behind the surge, he and others argue, is an adolescent boomlet - children of the baby-boom generation reaching the age when they are most likely to commit violent crimes.

Mr. Fox says urban blacks tend to have children at a younger age than their white and suburban counterparts, which is one reason so many fatalities are concentrated in inner-city ethnic neighborhoods. But he says it is only a matter of time before the numbers rise in the suburbs, too.

Others point to drugs as a major contributor to homicides. The crack-cocaine trade has no doubt exacerbated turf battles and given gangs more money to buy guns. But some crime experts view drugs, like violence, as a symptom of urban decay rather than a cause of it.

Both the number and firepower of guns on the street are a source of growing concern. The switchblade and Saturday-Night Special are being replaced by the Uzi and semiautomatic pistol. Thus when a fight breaks out, the results are usually more deadly.

``I think a major underlying cause is advanced weaponry,'' says Lawrence Sherman, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland and president of the Crime Control Institute a research group. ``There are more weapons with greater killing power.''

He and others would like to see strict federal controls on powerful handguns, though that appears unlikely at a time when gun-control advocates have failed to persuade Congress to ban assault rifles.

Most experts agree that more attention needs to be paid to the social problems underlying inner-city violence. This means after-school programs, day care, recreation, and other activities to combat idleness, joblessness, and the breakdown of the family.

As noble as these ideas are, however, they cost money and most cities are having trouble underwriting the easier solutions to crime - more prisons and cops on the beat.

``Crime is the only problem for which we have no long-term strategy,'' says criminologist James Fyfe of American University. ``So many of our cities are turning into crime factories. We aren't doing anything about it.''

Still, meaner streets don't necessarily signal a meaner society. Some recent studies have shown no significant increase in rapes and other serious assaults committed by teenagers, even though murders were up.

While experts say many of today's inner-city youth do exhibit a more cavalier attitude toward violence, they nevertheless point out that several factors contributing to the surge in homicides - demographics and bigger guns - are not cultural.

``I wouldn't say the social fabric is more prone to violence,'' says criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie-Mellon University. ``But the violence by those who do it is more intense.''

Even so, such a distinction may be of little comfort when the number of Americans killing each other continues to rise - particularly to those losing loved ones.

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