A True Murder Mystery: Killings Are Up Again

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Looks like this could be a long, hot, bloody summer in a few of America's largest cities. According to the Associated Press, murder rates are on the rise in several major cities across the country, from New York City to New Orleans to Los Angeles. The spike, coming on the heels of a sustained downturn in serious crime, brings some metropolitan areas back on track with 1997 and 1998 homicide figures, and has social scientists and city police departments in a dither. This year's increase, after all, is as mysterious as the previous ebb, and there's nothing more disconcerting to urban policy makers than inexplicable fluctuations in crime.

Unfortunately, it looks like we're going to have to live with the bewilderment — everyone has a theory as to why crime is on the rise, but no one knows for sure. Among the most popular hypotheses:

  • In the late 1990s, incidents of serious crime reached a critical low point, due to increased rates of imprisonment and "get tough" law enforcement, and now we're simply witnessing a natural bounce back to more "normal" numbers.

  • This is only a brief and specific setback — witness the continued dramatic downturn in crime in cities such as Denver and Phoenix.

  • The population of 14-to-20-year-olds (long considered a particularly crime-prone age group) is growing, prompting some criminologists to worry that the worst is yet to come.

    That last point is exactly what inhabitants of major cities fear most. OK, plenty of New Yorkers have long harbored a secret hope that rising crime rates will yank housing prices back into the realm of reason. But for the most part, city dwellers have spent the past five or six years in a state of uneasy contentment, pleased but mystified by the drop in crime, never quite believing they were safe. Maybe it's better that we never got too comfortable.