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America Is Safer Than It was Decades Ago But Homicides Are Up Again

Late last month, a man named Matheno El was shot and killed in the District. Police said the 25-year-old was shot in the back before being pronounced dead at a local hospital. The week before, authorities in New Jersey said a 45-year-old man named Ronald Gwaltney was fatally shot. Two days earlier, police in Nashville said they arrested a 61-year-old man and accused him of killing Laura L. Jones, his longtime girlfriend, inside his home.

These deaths represented a fraction of the homicides that occurred across this country during the first half of this year, many with relatively little notice. They also occurred in places that have seen homicides increase in the first half of 2016, something authorities say has been the case in a string of cities across the country.

Police departments in many major cities and metropolitan areas say that homicides and other violent crimes are up midway through 2016 over the same point last year, reports that come as the country’s levels of bloodshed have become a recurring topic in the presidential campaign.

More than two dozen police agencies say killings in their cities were up at the midyear point, in some cases outpacing their 2015 homicide counts by dozens of deaths, according to statistics released Monday. Much of this violence is continuing in the same places that also saw violence also increase last year, as most cities with higher homicide totals for the first half of 2016 also reported more killings for all of 2015.

Experts urged caution in reviewing the numbers, saying that they do not represent a trend and noting that nearly half of the cities that released homicide numbers this week reported fewer killings this year than last year. As was the case earlier this year, cities releasing homicide figures appeared roughly split between those with increases and decreases.

These figures come as the country’s violent crime rates are still far below what they were just a couple of decades ago, yet they have still caused worry in cities across the country. Law enforcement officials, criminologists and other experts have been unable to explain precisely why homicides have continued to increase in some places.

“It’s something that we ought to be concerned about,” said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the group of law enforcement leaders that collected and released this data. “The increases, even though the numbers aren’t big in most cities, there’s still an increase over what we’ve seen in years past, and there are lots of cities … seeing some kind of increase in violent crime.”

Violent crime took center stage last week during Donald Trump’s dark and foreboding acceptance speech at the Republican convention, as he delivered remarks laden with questionable assertions about a nation afflicted with “crime and terrorism and lawlessness.”

do not particularly match up with what is happening in America and the realities of a country where worries about crime often outpace actual crime levels.

President Obama, speaking the day after Trump, echoed many criminologists in pointing out that while violence has increased in some places, the crime rate nationwide remained far lower than it was a quarter-century earlier

“As disturbing as some of the upticks in crime that we’ve seen in some of our cities around the country, including my home town of Chicago, violent crime is substantially lower today than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago or 30 years ago,” he said.

The numbers released Monday cover only some parts of the country, coming from a little more than four dozen police agencies. They do not include every police department that reported figures for the first three months of 2016, nor every agency that provided data for all 2015, because some have not compiled or submitted their data, said Stephens, a former police chief in Charlotte. As a result, this data provides only a glimpse, rather than a full picture, of what is happening in the country’s biggest cities

(The full, nationwide picture of crime in the United States this year won’t be available until the latter part of next year. The FBI still has not actually released its full data for 2015 yet, numbers that the bureau is expected to release later this year. Preliminary data released by the FBI in January for the first half of 2015 showed an uptick in murders and violent crime nationwide.)

These new numbers, for example, do not include violent crime numbers from the New York City Police Department, the country’s largest police force. According to police in New York, murders and shootings both declined through the first half of this year from a year earlier. Through June 30, there were 161 murders in New York, down from 172 at the same point a year earlier; shootings declined to 435 from 545 over the same period, police said.

And the new numbers inevitably represent a snapshot in time, which is unavoidable when looking only at a set period. But this means that a matter of days or weeks dictate whether a city reports an increase or a decrease in homicides.

Take Washington, where Matheno El was apparently the last homicide victim of the first half of 2016. Police in Washington reported that midyear homicides had increased to 68 from 63 at that point last year, which put the nation’s capital among those cities with an increase for the first half of 2016.

However, as of Monday, homicides in Washington had actually dropped to 70 from 79 at the same point last year. Similarly, the Philadelphia police had said that that as of the midyear mark, homicides there were up to 122 from 115. By Sunday night, the 143 homicides in that city marked a slight decrease from the 145 killings a year earlier.

“There’s a lot of noise in this data,” said Richard Berk, a professor of statistics and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He said that recently, his city had multiple shooting homicides in one day, then none the following day. “We don’t understand why in any kind of systematic way. You can’t make too much [of the numbers] unless there’s a really good pattern.”

Berk said that human beings, by nature, look for patterns, comparing it to how announcers say a basketball player who sinks a series of three-pointers must be on a hot streak. He said it would be one thing if more of cities reported similar changes but noted that of the 47 cities releasing full figures for the first half of 2016, nearly as many reported decreases (21) as increases (26).

“It would be different if all the cities showed a similar increase or similar decease,” he said. “Then you could say the 50 largest cities are showing a similar effect and they’re in different parts of country. That says there might be something systematic going on. But they don’t.”