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Phila. leads big cities in murder rate

"It's a disturbing statistic," the police commissioner says. Other cities saw a rise.

Philadelphia had the highest murder rate among the nation's 10 largest cities last year, and violent crime and property crime grew at a rate that exceeded the national average, according to FBI statistics released yesterday.

Philadelphia's 406 murders last year represented a 7.7 percent increase over 2005. The 10 largest cities recorded an increase of 6.9 percent and nationwide the rate increased 0.3 percent, according to the FBI's preliminary uniform crime report.

Among the top 10 cities, Philadelphia reported the highest violent-crime rate last year, up 5.9 percent. Nationwide, violent crime increased 1.3 percent last year over 2005, according to the FBI's annual survey of 11,723 law enforcement agencies. Violent crime includes murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

"It's a disturbing statistic, we're very concerned about it, and we're going to do everything we can to reduce it," Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson said yesterday.

Property crime, which includes motor vehicle theft, burglary and larceny, decreased 2.9 percent nationwide. In Philadelphia, such thefts increased 3.6 percent.

Other top-10 cities had higher growth rates in violent crime last year - New York experienced a 10.6 percent increase in murders, and Houston recorded 12.9 percent more murders last year.

But Philadelphians were more likely to be murdered than residents of other cities whose populations exceed one million people. Philadelphia had a murder rate of 27.8 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006, compared with 18.9 in 2002. Houston, the second-most-murder-prone city in the top 10, had 18.2 murders per 100,000 last year.

The release of the data prompted local officials to renew calls for more assistance from Harrisburg and Washington. "We need stronger gun laws from the commonwealth and more support from the federal government," said Joe Grace, Mayor Street's spokesman.

The statistics show that Philadelphia's peer group is not really other mega-cities, but other cities with substantial impoverished underclasses - Atlanta; Baltimore; Washington; Memphis; Oakland, Calif.; Richmond, Va.; St. Louis; Detroit; and Newark, N.J.

Among 34 cities with populations greater than 500,000, Philadelphia's murder rate ranked fourth. Detroit, Baltimore and Washington recorded murder rates of 47, 43 and 29 per 100,000 inhabitants last year. Philadelphia also had the fourth-highest rate of violent crime among cities of a half-million or more, behind Detroit, Memphis and Baltimore.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who last week proposed legislation that would increase penalties for some violent crimes and restore mandatory minimum sentences, said the crime statistics did not reveal nationwide trends. "Rather, they show local increases in certain communities," he said in Washington last week.

But some criminologists say the statistics tell a tale of a nation cleaved along lines of populations - larger jurisdictions that have been on the short end of federal budget cuts, as well as those cities that have had to divert law enforcement resources to homeland security.

Violent crime is up in cities with populations larger than 250,000, which have lost about 10 percent of their law enforcement resources since 2000, said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

In the rest of the country where police forces have not shrunk, he said, crime rates are steady. "I know people want their tax cuts, but a few hundred dollars in extra taxes seems small when you're staring down the barrel of a gun," said Fox.

Criminologists say the crime is attributable to a complex mix of social and economic causes - unemployment, a resurgence in gang activity, increased traffic in illegal guns, reductions in programs for youth development, children growing up in poverty, and single-parent households.

The challenge, Fox said, is that law enforcement will not be able to respond quickly to the increase in crime because it takes several years to recruit, train and deploy new officers to expand a depleted police force.

Grace, the mayor's spokesman, noted that homicides are up across Pennsylvania since 2000 and called on the legislature to tighten restrictions on gun purchases. "This is not just a Philadelphia and Pittsburgh problem," he said.