Is This a 'Bull Market' for Crime? : New Statistics Prompt Renewed Debate Over Violence Nationwide

Times Staff Writer

"I said to myself, 'Turn your head. He's going to shoot you, you know.' And then I thought, 'No.' I wanted to see if it's going to come. I wanted to see my life flash before me, like they say happens before you die or whatever."

In the space of a gunshot, she became a statistic. And a puzzling one at that.

Was the 31-year-old woman--shot in the back of the head during a holdup in the Wilshire District in March--swept up in what one criminologist calls a "rising tide of violence" in this country?

Or is the woman--alive today because the bullet did not penetrate her skull--just another casualty of what other experts say is a relatively stable level of mayhem in a large American city?

In a year marked in Southern California by the spate of freeway shootings, the brutal home attacks on Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and California Secretary of State March Fong Eu, widespread gang violence, even the daylight theft at gunpoint of Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner's official car, a new debate over crime rates--and the social forces behind them--is beginning to blaze.

After several years of broad decline, major crime--particularly violent crime--is again on the way up, some prominent national experts are beginning to argue.

Others are quick to dispute that, saying crime is simply being reported more efficiently and that year-to-year statistical jumps are meaningless.

Increase in Crime Reports

But crime reported by police increased 6.3% overall in 1986 and was up in all but seven of the 50 states, according to an annual national survey released in late July by the FBI. This follows a 4% increase in 1985 and is 1.8% greater than the previous peak year of 1982.

In California last year crime increased 6.2%, in Los Angeles 5.8%. (For the first half of this year in Los Angeles, according to the Police Department, total reported crime was down 5.3%.)

Experts arguing that the figures indicate a disquieting trend predict that crime may well continue to climb for at least several years, as more children of the "echo boom" (children of "baby boomers") reach peak ages for committing crimes. This prospect, they say, defies earlier predictions that crime rates would continue to decline until at least the early 1990s, largely because of an aging population.

Earlier this year--and before the release of the FBI's latest report--the Justice Department's National Crime Survey estimated that five out of six of today's 12-year-olds will be the victims or the intended victims of violent crimes during their lifetimes if then-current crime rates persist.

Based on data collected from 1975 through 1984, the survey, which collects data independent of the FBI, also said that 45% of black males will become victims of violent crime three or more times. For white males the percentage was 37%, for black females 24% and for white females 13%.

Lawrence Sherman, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland and head of the Crime Control Institute in Washington, thinks that across the nation "we're in a bull market for crime."

"We have an increase in serious violence in major urban centers. . . . We are, of course, seeing a lot of drug murders," Sherman said.

"To the extent that they're drug murders, you and I don't have to worry about it. But stores are open later and people are out later. We have people out late at night delivering pizza and they're getting killed. As we become more and more a 24-hour society, opportunities for crime increase.

"It's the Wild West out there after midnight."

As examples, Sherman cited "vast" increases in murders in Milwaukee--from 68 in 1985 to 83 in 1986--and in Minneapolis--from 29 in 1985 to 44 in 1986.

Alfred Blumstein, dean of the school of urban and public affairs at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University, said that one possible reason for the unanticipated increase in crime is an unexpected demographic phenomenon, that the population of the high-crime years of the late teens and early 20s may be larger than current demographic studies suggest.

Blumstein, a nationally known crime researcher and chairman of Pennsylvania's commission on crime and delinquency, said that recent evidence has made him change his mind about the direction of crime.

The latest FBI report is "surprising and disappointing," he said because "my forecast for the '80s had crime coming down . . . because of the changing demographics and with crime coming up again in the '90s as the echo boomers came into the high-crime ages."

The FBI figures, he added, "raise the issue of whether what we're seeing as the leading edge of this upturn--which was anticipated something like five or more years from now-- may well be starting earlier."

Blumstein added, "The fact that in (the FBI crime report) at least we're seeing two years of confirmation (of a crime increase) could still be a random fluctuation--but your hunches shift when you see a second year of it. . . .

"Part of my hunch, and I'm not sure I can document it all that well, is that what we're seeing is a change in the socioeconomic structure (poorer, socially and culturally disadvantaged) of the folks in the high-crime ages, the late teens particularly."

Jesus Moreno, 61, on his way home from work about 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 6, stopped as usual to buy two lottery tickets at a small grocery a few blocks from his house in central Los Angeles. Crossing the street to return to his car, he was jumped by a man wielding a screwdriver. In the ensuing fight, Moreno reports he took the weapon away from the man, who fled a few seconds later.

"He did me a favor because I found that I'm a pretty good fighter," Moreno says, noting that he still cruises the neighborhood looking for his assailant. "If I ever find this guy, I'm going to get him."

On the surface at least, the FBI report contains support for Sherman and Blumstein's assessments. Murder was up 8.6% overall, up 11% in the West and up 9.7% in California. In Los Angeles murder was up 6.9%, according to the local police's yearly summary.

Some states recorded significant increases--115.4% in South Dakota, 45.5% in Idaho, 42.4% in Oregon, 32% in the District of Columbia, 23.3% in Connecticut, 20.9% in Arizona and 19.3% in Minnesota. But some states recorded decreases. The murder rate dropped 50% in Montana, 38.9% in Vermont and 17.9% in Maine, for example.

Other categories of major crime also went up.

Robberies climbed 9% nationally, 8% in the West and 7.1% in California and Los Angeles.

Rape was the major crime with the smallest increase, 3.2% nationally and 4% in the West. The increase was larger in California, 6.1%, but smaller in Los Angeles, 0.5%.

The most dramatic figures were for aggravated assault, up 15.5% nationally, 39.1% in California and 52.7% for Los Angeles.

Change in Report Procedures

But it is generally agreed that much of the increase in aggravated assault was due to changes in reporting procedures that began to be implemented last year. Domestic disputes that rarely made the books are now being reported, several experts said, noting that aggravated assault is perhaps the most elastic of crime categories and is often used as a grab-bag category.

Carnegie-Mellon's Blumstein disagreed, however, saying that a percentage of the increase in aggravated assault is probably due to demographics.

Many crimes, he said, are mainly committed by teen-agers and young adults, a declining segment of the population. But in the case of aggravated assault, he said, it is committed by young adults and older adults, who make up the bulk of this country's population.

Sherman also noted that he has gathered evidence in a study of crime in Minneapolis that crimes may be a highly localized phenomenon. "All of the rape, robbery and auto theft in Minneapolis occur in 4% of the areas in the city," he said. "In other words, 96% of the city was free of those crimes."

Others Are Adamant

Other experts remain adamant, however, that one- and two-year "blips" in crime measurement are not meaningful--at least not yet--and that crime statistics are notoriously subject to the whims and errors of local reporting agencies. It will be another two years, they say, before an upward trend--if it exists--is clear enough to call.

"I've seen it (the national crime rate) bounce around so much the last 15 years, I don't get excited about it," said Richard Berk, a professor of sociology and statistics at UC Santa Barbara, in a comment closely echoed by others.

And Sheldon Messinger, professor of law at UC Berkeley, said "It's extremely difficult to look at year-to-year figures and make predictions." He added that he's skeptical of the FBI report because it's "not records of crimes but records of how the police are reporting crimes."

Skeptics about an increase in crime can point to yet another source of statistics. Preliminary data from the National Crime Survey, a yearly study of 100,000 households conducted by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, suggests little change in the overall crime rate from 1985 to 1986, said the bureau's Michael Rand.

The preliminary figures indicate that violent crime may have declined slightly, from 30 violent crimes per 1,000 people 12 and older in 1985 to 28 violent crimes in 1986, he said, adding that the difference is "not statistically significant."

Not a Class Factor

Rebutting Blumstein, Philip Cook, a professor of public policy at Duke University who specializes in crime issues, said he doubts that juveniles of any economic class are to blame for jumps in the crime rate. A study he made of juvenile arrest rates from about 1971 through the early part of this decade found no significant increases in the arrest rates for so-called echo boomers.

"There were bumps up and down but no trend," he said. "The reason I think it's remarkable is because there's more reason to think kids are more troubled today than 15 years ago."

But Cook conceded that the FBI's latest murder figures worry him. "If the homicide rate moves, that's a hard statistic. There's not much that can be fiddled with there," he said.

The 50-year-old woman says she is still dealing with the psychological aftershocks of her encounter with two masked men who burglarized her Mount Washington ho m e and held her at gunpoint Jan. 26. "I carried an ice pick for a while. I've got a gun now . . . I'm still thinking about a shotgun, by the way. But I don't want to hurt anyone who's innocent. That would be terrible, to shoot someone because I freaked out . "

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