WASHINGTON -- The violent crimes rate declined in 2003 despite a third consecutive yearly increase in the number of homicides, according to preliminary FBI statistics released yesterday.
The rate for violent crimes -- rape, robbery, aggravated assault, and homicides, including murder and manslaughter -- dropped 3.2 percent compared with 2002, fueled mostly by sharp declines in rape and assault.
Homicide was the only category to increase, rising nationwide last year by about 178 cases, or 1.1 percent. In the previous two years, murder and manslaughter edged up 1 percent in 2002 and 2 percent in 2001.
''I think it's very impressive," said Jack Levin, a criminologist who is director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University. ''We've gone through a recession, we've gone through a period where the stock market plummeted, and we came out in pretty good shape."
Specialists said that the decrease in violent crime should be interpreted carefully, because police have wider discretion in reporting rape and assault, the categories showing the biggest declines last year.
Even so, the rise in homicide is relatively small, compared to the double-digit increases of the early 1990s, sparked by crack cocaine, and in the tumultuous 1960s, a period marked by discord over the Vietnam War and civil rights.
Meanwhile, the increase in homicides in recent years might be attributed to increased drug activity and more guns on the streets, specialists said.
''We've had plenty of disagreements, but nothing like the huge social movements in the past," said Gary LaFree, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland in College Park. ''And the fact that robbery is going down suggests there may be a partial law enforcement effect."
LaFree said the overall drop in violent crime is a bit surprising, given cutbacks in police forces in recent years. He attributed it in part to smarter policing.
Rates for violent crimes have been dropping steadily over the past five years, particularly in the nation's largest cities. The report yesterday found a 6.5 percent decrease from 2002 to 2003 in those crimes in cities with more than 1 million inhabitants. Decreases were reported in all regions.