US murder rates collapse

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AS LONG as the next 24 hours do not see a bloodbath of vast proportions, New York City is heading for a remarkable achievement: the lowest number of murders since 1964.

Its rapidly declining murder rate is part of a nationwide trend towards lower crime figures, and in particular a rapid decline in murders in the big cities.

Virtually all have recorded sharply lower figures over the past few years, and 1998 looks bound to be the most peaceful since the epidemic of crack cocaine turned many city streets into free fire zones.

USA Today compiled the lists of murders for 10 big cities, and found them down an average of 12 per cent. Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Antonio and San Diego have all seen a decline, though in most cases it is back to the levels of the 1980s and 1970s, while Dallas and Phoenix saw small increases.

New York City police investigated 586 murders from 1 January until 13 December, a staggering drop of nearly 20 per cent from the same period in 1997. In Los Angeles, the decline was even larger, at 27.8 per cent.

The changes have coincided with shifts in policing techniques towards "zero tolerance" of any misdemeanour, the introduction of limited controls on gun purchases, but also, more importantly, an economic boom that has made city streets safe again. Meanwhile, the US prison and jail population has grown to more than 1.7 million - or about 1 per cent of the adult population.

The highest murder rate in the US is in New Orleans, according to the most recently released figures, with a murder rate of 75 per 100,000 residents per annum, while Washington DC, the capital, ranked second. However, visitors need not worry too much as crime is concentrated in certain areas of the city. The national average murder rate is 6.8 per 100,000, which compares with a rate of 2 per 100,000 in Scotland in 1996 and 1 per 100,000 in England.

The violent crime rate in the United States fell almost 7 percent in 1997 to the lowest level since standardised records were first collected 25 years ago, the US Justice Department reported earlier in the week.

There were an estimated 39 violent crimes per 1,000 US residents 12 years or older, a 21 per cent drop since 1993. The statistics for rape and sexual assault, however, have been slower to change.

The most dangerous US city is Gary, Indiana, according to a separate survey released yesterday, which ranks US cities by several categories of violent crime. The Morgan Quitno Press survey ranked cities of over 75,000 and found Gary, an industrial city situated in the mid-West near Chicago, to be the worst place for a second year running.

After Gary came Camden, New Jersey; Detroit; Atlanta; St Louis; New Orleans; Richmond, Virginia; Baltimore; Miami; and Newark, New Jersey. Even in Gary, only 79 murders have been committed so far this year, down about 15 per cent from last year.

California's population is rising rapidly again as the outflow of emigration to the western states starts to reverse, says to the US Census Bureau.

It said that total US population rose by 1 per cent to 270,299,000 at July 1. The fastest growing state was Nevada, followed by Georgia, Colorado and Texas. The West was the fastest-growing region with a rise of 1.6 per cent, followed by the South with 1.3 per cent and the Midwest with 0.4 per cent. The North-east grew by only 0.3 per cent.