Is crime going up or down in America? It seems even the experts can't quite agree.
Just two weeks after FBI data signaled an end to a decade-long free fall in national crime rates, a conflicting study from a sister agency in the Justice Department concluded Wednesday that violent crime plummeted a record 15% last year.
That represents the biggest single-year drop in the study's 27-year history--but it also reflects a rare divergence between the two primary barometers of national crime.
The difference, criminologists say, may come down to who counts crime and how they define it. Where the FBI relies on police reports to track more serious types of crime, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys tens of thousands of people, asking if they were the victims of a variety of both minor and major offenses in the last year.
Usually, those two methods produce essentially the same trends.
But this year, for reasons that criminal experts are still grappling to understand, the study released Wednesday found that huge drops in simple assaults and other relatively minor types of crime that aren't tracked by the FBI drove the nationwide rates of violent crime down 15% and property crime down 10% from 1999 to 2000.
In contrast, the FBI found in its preliminary data last month that violent crime in that same period rose 0.1%, while property crime was unchanged. Worried criminologists, citing the FBI data, declared that an unprecedented eight straight years of declining crime was over, stalled by a lagging economy, more parolees and other factors.
The FBI and Justice statisticians did agree on one point: that residents in Western states are faring worse than those in other parts of the country when it comes to crime.
The perplexing gap between the two crime reports was probably the biggest on record, officials said. Researchers at the Bureau of Justice Statistics were so surprised that they reexamined their initial findings to make sure there hadn't been a mistake, said Callie Marie Rennison, the Justice Department researcher who authored the statistics bureau's report.
"We wanted to make sure. All of us, like the public, have been thinking that the decline [in crime] was going to end, and then . . . we see the largest decrease we've ever had, so we wanted to make sure there wasn't something we were missing," she said in an interview.
But the numbers held up, Rennison said.
The statistics bureau report, based on Census Bureau surveys with nearly 160,000 residents ages 12 and older, asking whether they had been victims of crime in the past year, estimated that there were nearly 26 million crimes in the United States in 2000. That was down from 28.8 million crimes the year before and represented the lowest total on record since the Bureau of Justice Statistics began tracking the data in 1973, when there were an estimated 44 million offenses.
Crime fell for almost every demographic group considered, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, geography, age and income, Justice researchers said.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, steering clear of the split between the two benchmark reports, said he was heartened by the record decline in the latest crime report.
"While such decreases in crime make great headlines, these are hard facts to those of our fellow citizens who have themselves been victims or whose relatives or friends have been victimized. These are more than positive statistics, they are indicators of a betterment of the quality of life for all our citizens," he said in a statement.
Among the highlights that Justice researchers cited in their report:
* People ages 12 and older were the victims of violent crime at a rate of 28 offenses per 1,000 people, a drop of 44% since 1993. The study does not count murders because it tracks only those crimes in which the victims are interviewed.
* Property crimes, including burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft, made up three-fourths of all offenses. Even in violent crimes, the offender usually was not armed.
* The most impressive improvements came in the rapidly declining numbers of rapes and other sexual assaults and of "simple assaults," which, unlike aggravated assaults, do not include a weapon or serious injury.
In the Western states, last month's FBI study found that crime has already started to creep back up. Likewise, the Bureau of Justice Statistics report concludes that crime in the West was declining much more slowly than in the other regions of the country.
People in the Western states faced the highest rate of violent crime in the country last year, according to the data, with about 34 violent crimes per 1,000 people and 223 property crimes. The Northeast was considered the safest of the four regions, with 23 violent crimes and 144 property crimes per 1,000 people.
Justice Department officials sought to downplay the differences between the reports, noting that they measure somewhat different crimes and use different methods.
There are some significant differences in the crimes measured by the two reports. The FBI tracks serious crimes, such as homicide and aggravated assault, but excludes lesser crimes such as simple assault. And the FBI counts only female rape victims, not males. It also tracks victims younger than 12.
The statistics bureau, on the other hand, besides excluding murder and simple assault, does not track crime victims younger than 12 and has a somewhat different definition of burglary. And the bureau tracks incidents of rape regardless of the victim's sex.
Moreover, the FBI relies entirely on voluntary reports from about 17,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, and experts estimate that more than half of all crimes are never reported to police, for reasons ranging from embarrassment to cultural impediments.
Justice Department officials said that when they try to account for those differences--factoring in only serious crimes reported to police, for instance--the gaps between the two studies in this year's data appear to grow much smaller.
"The split seems wider at first glance than it really is," said James Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist who is an authority on crime data.
"The fact that there's this wide discrepancy doesn't necessarily say that either study is invalid; they're just measuring different things. The [FBI report] generally measures more serious crimes, the ones that drive public opinions," Fox said.
But those dissimilarities alone cannot explain the gap, officials acknowledge. And with a lot riding on the answers--police funding, policy initiatives and other critical law enforcement decisions are all influenced at least in part by national crime trends--Justice Department officials said they are eager to find out what the conflicting numbers mean.
So in the meantime, should the public feel safer or more threatened?
Lawrence Greenfeld, acting director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, said that as confusing as the two sets of data may appear, he believes crime is continuing the record downturn seen throughout much of the 1990s. "That's what the public is telling us," he said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Drop in Violent Crimes
The number of crimes committed in 2000 dropped off markedly from the year before, according to a Justice Department report that relied on surveys of nearly 160,000 people ages 12 and older.
Percent change 1999-2000
Violent crimes: -14.9%
Rape/sexual assault: -29.4%
Personal theft: 33.3%
Source: Department of Justice