updated 6/7/2005 7:46:01 AM ET 2005-06-07T11:46:01

The number of murders fell last year for the first time since 1999, part of a nationwide decline in all types of violent crime, according to FBI data released Monday.

Cities with more than 1 million people had the greatest decrease in violent crime, 5.4 percent, while cities under 10,000 saw the greatest decrease in murder, 12.2 percent.

Murders fell by 3.6 percent from the 16,500 reported in 2003, meaning there were nearly 600 fewer. Chicago was largely responsible for the drop.

The city led the nation in homicides in two of the three previous years, so leaders there launched a law enforcement effort that drove down the number of murders from 598 in 2003 to 448 last year.

Drop in violence bucks expectations
Criminal justice experts say the decline in violent crime was something of a surprise because gang-related activity is increasing in some parts of the country, the economy is sputtering in some areas, the number of at-risk youth is rising and law enforcement budgets are experiencing cuts.

“At this point, even slight improvements are very good news,” Northeastern University criminal justice professor James Alan Fox said.

Alfred Blumstein, a criminal justice expert at the Heinz School at Carnegie-Mellon University, said, “It’s nice that it dropped, but the drops were by no means universal.” Murders in the western part of the country rose 0.4 percent, and violent crime rose in some smaller- and medium-size cities.

With more than 12,700 law enforcement agencies reporting, the FBI’s preliminary data shows the number of violent crimes decreased 1.7 percent in 2004 compared with 2003, while property crime fell 1.8 percent.

Violent crimes are rape, robbery, aggravated assault and homicides including murder and manslaughter. Property crimes include burglaries, larceny/theft and car theft. Every category saw a drop from 2003.

Arson decline leads the field
Arson, measured separately, saw the biggest drop of all — 6.8 percent.

Video: FBI: Girls more violent All four of the nation’s regions showed decreases in violent crime, with the Northeast dropping the most, 2.6 percent, followed by the West (2 percent), Midwest (1.5 percent) and South (1.2 percent).

Property crime was down in three of four regions and declined in cities of all sizes: The drops were 3.5 percent in the Midwest, 2.5 percent in the Northeast and 2 percent in the South. The decline in the West was less than 0.1 percent.

There were some increases. Cities with populations of 250,000 to 500,000 registered a 1.3 percent increase in violent crime, and in cities of 25,000 to 50,000, the rise was 1.1 percent. Cities of 25,000 to 50,000 showed a 1.7 percent increase in murders, and those with populations of 10,000 to 25,000 showed a 0.8 percent increase.

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