Big-city murders rose sharply in 2006 as violent crime increased nationally for the second straight year, the FBI reported Monday. Homicides committed in small towns and mid-size cities took a dramatic downswing - resulting in an overall 0.3 percent increase in the murder rate across the country, the new preliminary data show.
Year-end totals for murders rose in eight of the nation's 10 largest cities: Chicago, Houston, Las Vegas, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio and San Diego. That contributed to a 6.7 percent murder rate increase in cities with populations over 1 million people.
The murder rate dropped in two other big cities, Dallas and Los Angeles. And it plummeted by an overall 11.9 percent in smaller cities, towns and rural areas, the data show.
The growing homicide numbers contributed to an overall 1.3 percent hike in violent crime nationwide in 2006. A year earlier, violent crime rose by 2.3 percent, the first increase since 2001.
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FBI Assistant Director Ken Kaiser, detailing the new numbers to reporters in Washington, said it's too soon to expect a long-term increase in violent crime.
"Am I happy with the increase in violent crime? Absolutely not. I'd have to be a fool to say I was," Kaiser said. "But I would tell you I think (police) are working very hard out there."
Kaiser also noted "dips and rises" in the nation's violent crime rate over the last several decades, and he described some successes in prosecuting and convicting criminals by teams of federal agents working with local and state police.
The new numbers come in the wake of the Bush administration's shifting focus - evidenced by lessening Justice Department grants and FBI investigators - from fighting crime to combating terrorists after the 2001 attacks. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has pledged to devote millions of additional dollars and a surge of federal agents to aid crime-riddled cities.
Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, a Democrat who presides over the National League of Cities, said local officials nationwide are asking Congress for more than $1 billion annually to restore stretched-thin police departments back to their full force. He attributed the rise, in part, to increased gang activity, violent youths and domestic crimes.
Indianapolis' murder rate rose by 30 percent - from 108 homicides in 2005 to 140 in 2006, the data show.
"We've faced some of the same problems," Peterson said. "It's been a huge concern to us."
Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., who chairs a Senate panel overseeing crime issues, said the new numbers should serve as "a wake-up call" to the administration, which he accused of slashing funding that would have put more local cops on the street.
"For years we drove down the crime rates - but now we're in reverse gear," said Biden, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president. "This administration has repeatedly ignored the needs to law enforcement, giving short shrift to the men and women who keep us safe every day."
Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said crime remains historically low in America and noted Gonzales' efforts to crack down on violence.
"We are concerned about crime in our communities and are taking action to protect our citizens from violent crime," Roehrkasse said.
The FBI report, compiled with data from more than 11,700 law enforcement agencies nationwide, also showed:
-Robberies spiked by 6 percent, marking the highest increase in any category of crime surveyed.
-Property crimes decreased overall by 2.9 percent from 2005. Burglaries, however, rose slightly - particularly in mid-size cities, where the rate grew by 3.3 percent.
-Violent crime rose in every region of the country except for the Northeast, the FBI reported. Western states saw the largest jump in violent crime, by 2.8 percent.