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Violent crime rose last year in US, FBI says — here's why you shouldn't panic

Violent crime in the U.S. rose last year for the first time since 2006, mainly in big cities, the FBI said Monday.

In a preliminary analysis of its annual Uniform Crime Report, the FBI said property crime fell by less than 1 percent across the nation over 2011, but violent crime rose by 1.2 percent, with the biggest jump — 3.7 percent — occurring in large cities (those with populations between 500,000 and 1 million).

The report says violent crime rose by 3.3 percent in the West, the biggest increase in any region, but dropped slightly (by six-tenths of a percent) in the Northeast, which recorded a 4.4 percent drop in murders.

The UCR is an enormous trove of data that generates a lot of local interest, but its real value has always been hard to pin down. It has several well-known statistical shortcomings that can lead to big and unexplained swings in the numbers year over year.

For one thing, it's incomplete. UCR data are provided voluntarily by police and sheriff's departments and state law enforcement agencies, which aren't required to do so.

The FBI said 13,770 law enforcement agencies are represented in the numbers released Monday. That means almost a third of all state and local agencies aren't included, based on the Justice Department's own law enforcement census, conducted every four years, which found more than 17,900 agencies across the U.S. in 2008. (The 2012 roundup hasn't yet been reported.)

And there's no standard for what to report, either. Participating agencies get to decide how to classify incidents and charges — some report an event as a single crime regardless of how many charges might be brought, while others tabulate and report each charge separately.

That leads to debates like the one taking place Monday in Toledo, Ohio, where Mayor Mike Bell said violent crime was down even though the preliminary UCR data indicated it rose last year by a staggering 17 percent.

Joe McNamara, a City Council member challenging Bell for re-election, pointed to the data and sad he was "just flabbergasted" by Bell's contention, NBC station WNWO reported.

Bell called that "political posturing" and insisted that "the crime rate is dropping, and it's dropping in a very positive way."

As for the Uniform Crime Report, it says in a footnote that Toledo's actual report to the FBI was so screwed up that it "has been excluded from all Report tabulations."

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