Violent Crime Up in 2016 But Still Near Historic Lows
By Evan Sernoffsky
Violent crime climbed in California and around the country in 2016, the second straight year of increases that have been driven by spikes in big cities like Chicago and have reversed longer-term trends toward safer cities and towns, the FBI reported Monday.
The per capita rate of homicides, robberies, assaults and rapes went up 4.1 percent nationally last year when compared with 2015. Killings alone were up 5.3 percent and reached a level last seen in 2008.
But the recent jumps, while prompting concern and a search for causes, do not reflect a picture of spiraling lawlessness suggested by some observers, criminologists said. President Trump earlier this year falsely claimed the U.S. murder rate had surged to its highest level in nearly 50 years.
Violent crime and property crime rates, instead, were uneven across the Bay Area and the country, with some local jurisdictions reporting falling numbers year-to-year, and nearly all of them seeing crime rates that are well off the historical highs of decades ago.
Property crime -- burglaries, thefts and boosted cars -- declined 1.3 percent across the country last year, the FBI said, the 14th consecutive drop.
In California, those crimes decreased 2.9 percent in 2016 after ticking up 6.6 percent the year before. The statewide property crime rate is down 63 percent since 1980. Meanwhile, California and U.S. homicide rates remained near their low point in the past half century.
In California, 1,930 people were slain last year, an increase of 3.7 percent that came on the heels of a rise of 9.7 percent the previous year. But the 2016 rate -- 4.9 victims for every 100,000 population -- is relatively low compared with the rate 10 years earlier (6.9) and far lower than the rate in 1980 (14.4).
"The overall picture is that homicide and violent crime rates went up dramatically in the 1970s and '80s and '90s, and then underwent a dramatic drop in the last 20 years, and leveled off," said Robert Weisberg, a Stanford University criminal law professor and co-director of the school's Criminal Justice Center.
The FBI's 2016 numbers, he said, "are not inconsistent with that."
Still, Bay Area law enforcement officials have expressed concern about the recent trend, opening up a debate over whether crime has gone up due to several factors, including the effort to reduce jail and prison populations and a struggle in some places to recruit and retain officers.
The FBI's "Crime in the United States" report compiled statistics from 16,782 towns, cities and other jurisdictions and is used to gauge crime priorities locally and nationally.
In California, violent crime went up from 2015 to 2016 in major cities, including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Jose, contributing to an overall increase of 4.1 percent. The state had seen an 8.4 percent jump the year before. However, California was coming off historic lows in 2014.
Nationally, the violent crime numbers were driven by year-to-year surges in cities like Chicago, Baltimore and Phoenix. Chicago, home to 2.7 million people, suffered 765 homicides in 2016, compared with 478 the year before.
"The apparent majority of the uptick is due to some really troubled places where the rate is catastrophically high," Weisberg said.
The Bay Area's figures reveal some contours of a region undergoing great transformation, while continuing to grapple with deep-rooted crime problems.
San Francisco, which is in the middle of a car-burglary epidemic, actually saw a decrease of 11 percent in property crimes last year. But the trend isn't expected to last, as vehicle break-ins were up 28 percent this year through the end of July, according to the Police Department.
Last year, Oakland continued to have the region's highest rate of violent crime. Killings in Oakland remained level, at 85, from 2015 to 2016, while the violent-crime rate dropped 1 percent.
The property-crime rate in Oakland -- also the highest in the Bay Area, narrowly edging San Francisco -- fell almost 4 percent over the same period, according to the FBI.
To the south, Fremont, with a population of 236,000, provided more evidence of its emergence as one of the safest big cities in the nation, with not a single homicide in 2016.
In the region's largest city, San Jose, violent crime went up 13 percent from 2015 to 2016 and homicides rose from 30 to 47. San Jose, though, remains relatively safe among big cities.
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