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Baltimore, D.C., Chicago drove rising U.S. murder rate in 2015

FILE- In this July 30, 2015 file photo, a man walks past a corner where a victim of a shooting was discovered in Baltimore. The summer after Gray's death saw the highest rate of bloodshed since Baltimore police began keeping track of homicides in 1972. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

A new study of crime statistics from major cities across the country reveals a rising number of murders in 2015, with violence in three cities fueling half of that increase.

Crime data for the 30 largest cities in the U.S. released by the Brennan Center for Justice indicates a 13.3 percent rise in murders in 2015, but analysts say it is too soon to determine whether this reflects a broader trend. They also note that the murder rate is still slightly lower than it was in 2012.

However, Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former Baltimore police officer, said the double-digit increase is significant. The last time the murder rate rose by more than 10 percent was 1971.

"It's a historic increase," he said. "Might it be a one year blip? Yeah, maybe, but the magnitude is just too large to assume it's a random fluctuation."

About half of the increase in murders is attributed to Baltimore (up 63 percent), Chicago (13 percent), and Washington, DC (51 percent). Violent crime reports in general ticked up 3.1 percent in 2015, largely due to substantial increases in Los Angeles (up 25 percent), Baltimore (19 percent), and Charlotte (16 percent).

While crime rates mostly remain considerably lower than 10 or 20 years ago, the murder rates in Chicago and Washington have reverted to the levels they were at in 2012 and 2007, respectively. Baltimore's murder rate is now as high as it was in the early 1990s.

In Chicago, at least, the numbers have gotten even worse in 2016. For the first three months of the year, murders increased 72 percent compared to the same period in 2015, and shootings were up 88 percent, according to police department statistics.

Brennan Center analysts could not draw definitive conclusions about why those cities produced more murders in 2015, but they all have falling populations, higher poverty rates, and higher unemployment than the national average. That "economic deterioration" may be a factor.

"While this suggests cause for concern in some cities, murder rates vary widely from year to year, and there is little evidence of a national coming wave in violent crime," the authors wrote. "These serious increases seem to be localized, rather than part of a national pandemic."

According to Moskos, the 13 percent increase in murders still matters even if it does not prove to be the start of a national crime wave.

"Even if it weren't part of a greater trend, we're still talking 1,400 or so more dead people," he said.

The findings of the new study are consistent with the FBI's national crime statistics for the first half of 2015. Preliminary statistics released in January indicated a 6.2 percent increase in murders, a 2.3 percent increase in aggravated assaults, and a .3 percent rise in robbery.

According to the FBI, the largest increase in reports of violent crime in the first six months of 2015 was seen in cities with populations between 250,000 and 499,999. Violent crime dropped 3.3 percent in nonmetropolitan counties, but it was up slightly in metropolitan counties. Violent crime was down in the northeast but rose in the rest of the country.

Initial data released last year suggesting a rise in crime sparked controversy and dire predictions, with some claiming that the Black Lives Matter movement and increased media scrutiny of law enforcement was making officers hold back from aggressive policing.

"Given less proactive policing that we've seen in many cities, it would follow that less crimes are reported," Moskos said.

Baltimore, where violent crime and murder are both on the rise, was the site of civil unrest and rioting after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody last April. The city has since replaced its police commissioner and several officers are facing criminal charges for their role in Gray's death.

Tensions between police and the community have also been high over the last year in Chicago, and Moskos has spoken to officers there about it.

"Cops in these cities all say that policing has changed and they're afraid to do what they see as their jobs," he said.

FBI Director James Comey and New York Police Department Chief Bill Bratton have spoken of a "YouTube effect" chilling law enforcement because their actions are so often captured on cellphone cameras and dissected online.

"Nobody says it on the record, nobody says it in public, but police and elected officials are quietly saying it to themselves," Comey said in a speech at University of Chicago Law School in October. "And they're saying it to me, and I'm going to say it to you...In today's YouTube world, are officers reluctant to get out of their cars and do the work that controls violent crime?"

Moskos said police work has definitely changed.

"Cops are getting the message that politicians are calling for fewer interactions because each interaction is a chance that something goes wrong."

He sees it as common sense and human nature for officers to stay away from situations where they could be sued or criticized by the media.

"When you talk to cops, their desire and ability to go out and interact with criminals has lessened," he said. "Can it be proved? Of course not."

More data may be necessary to determine exactly how police behavior is changing and whether there is any correlation between that and rising crime. Crime statistics for 2016 will also help clarify any trends that are developing.

According to Moskos, the important question is no longer whether violent crime is increasing but instead why it is occurring.

"I find it weird that we're still talking about if it's happening," he said.

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