Violent crime rose across the country in the first six months of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014, according to preliminary data released Tuesday by the FBI.
The statistics are sure to fuel speculation over the connection between policing reforms and crime rates, specifically the “Ferguson effect” theory of chilled police. But public safety experts warn against drawing any conclusions about long-range crime trends, saying that the data is too limited to make sweeping declarations.
According to the FBI data, murders were up by 6.2 percent during the first half of 2015 compared to the first six months of 2014 — marking the first uptick in that category in four years. Aggravated assaults were up by 2.3 percent and rapes increased by 1.1 percent.
Property crimes, including burglary and arson, dropped over the same six-month period — decreasing by 4.2 percent overall.
Violent crime rates have been on a downward decline over the last several decades. But an uptick in homicides reported by police departments in several major cities last year prompted concern among both law enforcement and elected leaders who have been unable to pinpoint a direct cause.
The topic is likely to come up Wednesday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., where a series of panels are dedicated to criminal justice and public safety.
The FBI data does not speculate on the possible cause for the violent crime increases and offers only limited insight into national crime rates as it is comprised of reports voluntarily submitted by 12,879 law enforcement agencies.
But one controversial theory is dubbed the “Ferguson effect,” after the St. Louis suburb where a fatal shooting of an unarmed black man led to riots and then widespread scrutiny of the local police department. The effect suggests that criticism of the police as a racist occupation force could be making officers less proactive and embolden criminals.
FBI Director James Comey has previously suggested that there could be some truth to the theory, saying last year in an address to law enforcement leaders that “a chill wind” had “blown through American law enforcement.”
But while officials are still struggling to get to the bottom of the homicide increases, some experts say it’s too soon to read into the uptick as a trend.
“The first six months of 2015 is not enough time to determine whether it’s going to be a trend,” said Ronal Serpas, former superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department and a co-chair man of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. “Many cities as they got into the second half of the year actually started reporting more encouraging numbers.”
And not every city recorded an increase in homicides, notes Inimai Chettiar, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
In the center’s own analysis of crime data for all of 2015, Ms. Chettiar said researchers discovered that large upticks in a handful of cities seemed to be skewing the data.
“We found the increase in murders is very localized, so you have a handful of really problematic cities, such as Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Chicago that are making the rates higher,” she said.
In reaction to the crime statistic release Tuesday, the Justice Department also urged caution in interpreting the results but noted that officials have implemented programs to tackle crime issues in the communities that have seen increases.
“While the overall violent crime rates remain historically low and it is too early to draw any long-term conclusions, the Justice Department is acutely focused on the increases being experienced in some communities of the country,” Justice Department spokesman Patrick Rodenbush. “This is why several months ago the Department intensified its efforts to identify and combat violent crime.”
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