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Driven By Chicago, Murder Rates Spike In Big U.S. Cities

After 2015 saw America's largest uptick in murders in 25 years, 2016 figures to be even worse, an analysis of crime statistics suggests.

Every year, the federal government releases statistics in the form of the FBI's Uniform Crime Index, a comprehensive snapshot of all recorded crimes from the previous year which includes national totals as well as crime statistics by jurisdiction.

The Uniform Crime Index is the primary way law enforcement agencies, think tanks and the media keep tabs on crime trends in the U.S., and lawmakers depend on it to help shape crime-fighting legislation.

While the official statistics for 2016 won't be released until September, FiveThirtyEight's Jeff Asher compiled a preliminary report by pulling data from individual police departments in the country's biggest cities, and supplementing that data with local media reports of murders across the country.

Since individual police departments are responsible for submitting their own stats to the FBI, Asher's count should be accurate as far as big cities go. And Asher, a former crime analyst for the City of New Orleans, says the results aren't pretty.

Murder rates climbed in America's big cities -- defined as cities with more than 250,000 people -- by 11.3 percent in 2016. Combined with a 14.8 percent increase in murders from the previous year, that means big city murders are up by more than 25 percent over two years, a troubling trend after the U.S. enjoyed more than two decades of plummeting crime rates. Asher's estimates line up with estimates by the New York-based think tank, the Brennan Center for Justice, which also keeps its own tally.

The biggest culprit was, predictably, Chicago. There were 762 murders in the Windy City in 2016, according to the Chicago Police Department. That's compared to 496 murders in 2015 and 423 the year before that. In 2016, Chicago accounted for 43.7 percent of the overall increase in murders in America's 30 biggest cities, the Brennan Center says.

"All these people getting killed, I feel sad," 11-year-old Devin Henderson of Chicago told CNN. "I feel scared. I don't want to be shot."

The number of shooting victims who survived their wounds was 4,368, according to the Chicago Tribune. That means each day in Chicago, two people were murdered and about 12 were wounded by firearms, statistics show. So far, Chicago is off to a slightly slower start in 2017, with "only" 81 victims over the first nine days, the Tribune's count shows.

While Chicago had the highest number of murders, and was the biggest contributor to the country's rising murder rate in 2016, other American cities far outpace Chicago by another metric -- murders per capita.

St. Louis, Detroit and New Orleans rounded out the top three American cities by murders per capita. For Detroit, recent years have actually been an improvement -- 2015 saw the fewest murders in 40 years in the Motor City, and St. Louis surpassed Detroit as the most dangerous city as measured by per-capita murders, according to FBI statistics.

But the general trend is more murders, not less, and as Asher pointed out, six big cities -- Louisville, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; Anchorage, Alaska; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Durham, North Carolina; and Indianapolis, Indiana -- "appear to have set records" for highest murder counts since 1960.

In other cities, like Orlando, murder rates were distorted by events like the June 12, 2016 mass shooting at a gay nightclub, in which gunman Omar Mateen killed 49 people.

According to Asher's estimate, the national murder rate is 5.3 per 100,000 people. That's up from recent years, but in context "murder is still down dramatically from the 1980s and 1990s" when the national crime rate was 9 murders per 100,000.

Still, the rise in murder rates is guaranteed to inform the ongoing national conversation about violence, particularly with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, who vowed during his campaign to make America's cities safer. In fact, The Washington Post reports, he said Chicago could all but wipe out murder entirely "by being very much tougher than they are right now."

Addressing those issues means looking at crime not as an isolated phenomenon, but as part of a larger narrative about American life. To some, the best way to improve quality of life -- and safety -- is by improving the economy.

"If you really want to stop this epidemic of violence," Chicago Pastor Ira Acree told CNN, "the best way to stop a bullet is with a job."

Sources: FiveThirtyEight, CNN, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post / Photo credit: Supaflyrobby/Wikimedia Commons

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