Among reasons that have been cited for the increase: a profusion of handguns, poverty and social isolation; warring gangs involved in the drug trade; and police officers who are said to be questioning fewer people and making fewer arrests for fear of being criticized.
Violent crime, including homicides, rose for the second consecutive year in 2016, driven by increases in a few urban centers including Baltimore, Chicago and Las Vegas, according to FBI data released Monday.
Violent crimes increased nationally this past year by 4.1 percent and homicides rose by 8.6 percent, one year after violence increased by 3.9 percent and homicides jumped by 10.8 percent. A total of 17,250 people were killed in 2016, the FBI said.
While crime overall and violent crime remain well below their levels of the 1980s and 1990s, last year was the first time violent crime increased in consecutive years since 2005 and 2006, according to the FBI data, which is collected from local police around the nation and released annually.
The figures come against a backdrop of steady crime reductions nationally during the past 25 years.
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“This is ominous,” said Mark Kleiman, a criminologist at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management. “What you worry about is that the trend is broken, and the numbers are going to go back up. A 20 percent increase in homicides over the past two years is not trivial. We’ve got what looks like a serious problem here.”
President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have said repeatedly that the nation is in the grip of a crime wave that requires more arrests and harsher penalties, including for nonviolent crimes like drug possession.
Trump, in his inauguration address in January, spoke of “American carnage” to describe the nation’s rate of killings, and Sessions has directed prosecutors to more aggressively charge those arrested, while blaming illegal immigration for much of the rise in violence.
Critics of the administration’s criminal-justice policies point out that despite the recent increases in violent crime, since 1971 there have been only five years with lower violent-crime rates than 2016.
“There are pockets of increased violence across the country that demand an increased response from all levels of government,” said Adam Gelb, director of the public safety project at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “But there is no indication that we’re in the midst of a crime wave, and no justification to return to the failed policies of the past.”
He added: “What’s going on? No one really knows. And if someone says they do know, you ought to be deeply suspicious. It’s too early to tell anything.”
Among reasons that have been cited for the increase: a profusion of handguns, poverty and social isolation; warring gangs involved in the drug trade; and police officers who are said to be questioning fewer people and making fewer arrests for fear of being criticized by superiors and civil-rights groups.
One theory that has gained traction of late is that violence has increased as police legitimacy has been questioned after the fatal police shootings of unarmed African Americans.
Proponents of the theory maintain that in cities where police departments treat citizens with disrespect and engage in brutality, residents will eventually stop cooperating with the police, which will diminish officers’ ability to solve crimes.
“The question really is, what is different now from 15 years ago in terms of why crime has increased?” said John Roman, a criminologist at the University of Chicago. “And the only thing that has changed is the distrust between heavily policed communities and local police. It’s not a coincidence that cities that have crime increases have also had problems between communities and the police.”
Among the cities that have experienced recent upticks in slayings coupled with questionable police shootings that prompted rioting or other civil disturbances are Chicago, Baltimore, Charlotte, St. Louis and Milwaukee. But other cities where there have been significant increases in homicides in recent years, including Las Vegas and Memphis, have been largely free of public anger in response to fatal police shootings.
In 2016, Chicago again led the nation in homicides with 765. In Chicago and elsewhere, homicide victims, as well as those arrested on murder charges, were disproportionately young, African-American and male, according to the FBI records and data from local law-enforcement agencies. The overwhelming weapon of choice was a firearm, responsible for 4 of 5 killings in 2016.
And although large cities — those with populations of more than 1 million people — saw homicides rise by 20.3 percent, and all violent crime increase by 7.2 percent in 2016, the trend toward greater violence was felt in cities and towns of all sizes. In towns with populations of fewer than 10,000 people, for instance, homicides rose by 8.4 percent, according to the FBI data.
Current data suggests, however, that violence may be tailing off in 2017, at least moderately.
In an analysis of the nation’s largest cities, the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law projected that violent crime would drop this year by 0.6 percent and that the overall crime rate would fall by 1.8 percent.