Monday, August 21, 2006


US facing wave of murders and gun violence

By Jason Szep

ROXBURY, Massachusetts (Reuters) - Analicia Perry was kneeling to light a candle at a makeshift shrine to her brother when she was shot in the face and killed -- four years to the day after her brother was gunned down on the same spot.

The slaying of the 20-year-old mother -- on a narrow street behind a police station in Boston's poor Roxbury district last month -- is one of the shocking examples of a rise in the murder rate across the United States that is raising questions about whether police are fighting terrorism at the expense of crime.

In a shift from trends of the past decade, violent crime is on the rise, fueling criticism of Bush administration policies as a wave of murders and shootings hits smaller cities and states with little experience with serious urban violence.

From Kansas City, Missouri, to Indianapolis, Indiana, places that rarely attract notice on annual FBI crime surveys are seeing significant increases in murder. Boston, once a model city in America's battle against gun violence, is poised to eclipse last year's homicide tally, which was the worst in a decade.

Explanations vary -- from softer gun laws to budget cuts, fewer police on the beat, more people in poverty and simple complacency. But many blame a national preoccupation with potential threats from abroad.

"Since September 11, much of the resources that were distributed to crime-fighting efforts in Boston and other major cities were redistributed to fight terrorism," said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University.

"The feds had supported after-school programs. They had supported placing more police officers in crime hot spots in major cities. These federal efforts were reduced," he said.


A 2005 Federal Bureau of Investigation crime report, issued last month, showed violent crime increasing for the first time in four years in 2005, up 2.5 percent from the year before, with medium-size cities and the Midwest leading the way.

While New York, Los Angeles and Miami still are enjoying drops in crime, smaller cities with populations of more than 500,000 are raising the alarm, posting an 8.3 percent rise in violent crime in 2005. Nationwide, the murder rate rose 5 percent -- the biggest rise in a single year since 1991.

After dramatic declines in murder rates in the 1990s, some cities dropped programs that emphasized prevention and controls on the spread of guns, often citing budget cuts.

"The Bush administration has scaled back funding for federal cops program," said Jens Ludwig, a criminal justice expert at Georgetown University. "From 1993 to 2000 we saw an impressive run-up in the number of law enforcement people patrolling against crime. That has really slowed down."

Of the 57 murders in Kansas City this year, 45 involved guns. "When things start getting out of control, people start shooting," said police Capt. Richard Lockhart.

Police in Indianapolis are clocking overtime after a dozen shootings in less than a week at the start of August that began with a cab driver gunned down. The city has had 71 murders this year, up from 51 a year ago.


The police chief in Washington, D.C., declared a crime emergency in July following the murder of a British political activist in the exclusive Georgetown neighborhood and a spate of attacks on tourists on the National Mall.

Several Midwest cities are on pace for a rise in murders this year, including Cincinnati and Columbus in Ohio and Memphis, Tennessee.

"It isn't gang or drug violence, it's just people getting violent," said Mark Williams, an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. "A lot of them are minor disagreements and people using guns to settle them."

From the expiration of a federal ban on assault rifles to tougher restrictions on databases that identify gun owners, gun laws have weakened in the past five years, said Daniel Vice, an attorney with the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

"The top five states with the highest gun death rates are five states with incredibly weak gun laws," he said, listing Louisiana, Alabama, Alaska, New Mexico and Wyoming.

In Miami, while overall crime is down, the use of semi-automatic weapons is growing.

"These things are dirt cheap," Police Chief John Timoney told Reuters, estimating the street price at $250 each. "We have seen these assault weapons being used time and time again by drug gangs."

(Additional reporting by Jane Sutton in Miami, Andrew Stern in Chicago and Andy Sullivan in Washington)

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