WASHINGTON -- Violent crime in 2005 increased at the highest rate in 15 years, driven in large part by a surge of killings and other attacks in many Midwestern cities, the FBI reported yesterday.
The FBI's preliminary annual crime report showed an overall jump of 2.5 percent for violent offenses, including increases in homicide, robbery, and assault. It was the first rise of any note since 2001, and rape was the only category in which the number of crimes declined.
The rise in violent offenses nationally represents the largest overall crime spike since 1991. Violent crime peaked in 1992, before beginning to plummet to its lowest levels in three decades.
Overall property crime -- including burglary, theft, and arson -- decreased 1.6 percent from 2004.
Criminal justice experts said there were a number of possible explanations for the increase, including an influx of gangs into medium-sized cities and a predicted surge in the number of inmates released from US prisons. The jump could also represent a lingering effect of the Sept. 11 2001, attacks, some experts said, because governments at all levels have diverted resources away from traditional crime fighting in favor of antiterrorism and homeland security programs.
James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, said the increase should serve as a ``wake-up call in Washington." Lawmakers and the Bush administration have cut back many law enforcement programs popular during the 1990s.
``We have to worry about not just homeland security but also hometown security," Fox said. ``High-crime areas have been relatively ignored over the last five years so we can deploy officers to fight terrorism."
Justice Department officials in Washington urged caution in interpreting crime statistics from a single year, and noted that the crime rate -- measured on a per-capita basis and not reflected in yesterday's FBI report -- is still low by historic standards. Richard A. Hertling, a principal deputy assistant attorney general, said the FBI statistics are ``a yellow flag" but do not represent a trend, in part because the numbers are preliminary and do not include full reports from all jurisdictions.
``We don't think these numbers are terribly useful for helping to figure out what is happening on a national level," Hertling said. ``That being said, they can be very useful for individual communities to see what their record is and what needs attention."
Cities with more than 1 million residents comprised the only FBI population category to show a decline in violent crime, though some individual large cities -- such as Phoenix and Houston -- posted increases. Crime reports fell again in New York. In Boston, there were 75 homicides in 2005 a 10-year high and a 17 percent increase from 64 in 2004.
Among violent crimes, the biggest rise in 2005 came in the number of homicides, which leapt 4.8 percent, to nearly 17,000. Some of the hardest-hit cities included Milwaukee (up 40 percent), Cleveland (38 percent), Houston (23 percent), and Phoenix (9 percent).