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After long decline, murders rise in small cities

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It's too soon to call it a trend, but last year's jump in murders – particularly in smaller cities – has some police and crime experts worried.

Murders rose 4.8 percent, the largest percentage increase in 15 years, according to the preliminary FBI numbers released Monday. And while the number of murders in the nation's largest cities barely changed, cities with smaller populations saw a much sharper increase. Murders were up 76 percent in Birmingham, Ala., 40 percent in Milwaukee, and 42 percent in Kansas City, Mo., and 12.5 percent on average for all cities between 100,000 and 250,000 people.

"This looks like something real," says David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "It's usually very unwise to read too much into the year-to-year movement. But within the general national decline [in violent crime in the past decade] there has been a general trend in the smaller jurisdictions and in rural areas that has been on the increase."

Experts have cited a wide range of possible causes for the jump, including budget cuts to police and social services, the proliferation of guns, diversion of police to the war on terror, growing meth use (perhaps one reason for the larger increase in the Midwest), and the spread of violent ideas through media and music.

But they also, like Professor Kennedy, caution against alarmist readings of statistics that can be thrown out of whack by a few cities and can fluctuate so much from year to year.

The nation's last big crime surge lasted from about 1985 to 1993, when the spread of crack cocaine and guns on the street played a part in big increases in murders and other violent crimes. That was followed by sharp decreases in the 1990s, and a largely flat crime rate since 2000.

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