Are Americans safer? It depends on where you live.
A report issued Monday by the FBI says the number of murders rose by more than 10 percent in 2015 from the previous year, while violent crime overall was up nearly 4 percent. Experts say the increase is driven by a spike in violent crime in at least several large cities, but they caution that the country is in the midst of such low crime rates that even the tiniest increase appears larger than it is.
"There are problems with violence in certain American cities and we need to work to address that, but there's no evidence of a national crime wave," said Inimai Chettiar of the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University School of Law.
The FBI report is based on information supplied by local law enforcement agencies through the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which compiles data on murders, aggravated assault, car thefts and other crime.
The statistics show an estimated 15,696 murders and non-negligent manslaughters in the country in 2015, a 10.8 percent increase from the year before. Those totals do not include killings that agencies have deemed justifiable.
Violent crime overall rose by 3.9 percent, though the total was still lower than levels from five and 10 years ago, in 2011 and 2006, the FBI said.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, speaking Monday at an event in Little Rock, Arkansas, said the new data show that "we still have so much work to do." But she also noted that crime in many communities has remained stable or decreased.
"And it is important to remember that while crime did increase overall last year, 2015 still represented the third-lowest year for violent crime in the past two decades," she added.
The FBI's crime totals have attracted scrutiny in recent years because of the inconsistent reporting by law enforcement agencies on use of force by police officers.
In a message accompanying this year's report, FBI Director James Comey called for more transparency and accountability in law enforcement and said the FBI is working toward developing a database chronicling incidents of police use of force.
"Information that is accurate, reliable, complete and timely will help all of us learn where we have problems and how to get better," he said.
The Brennan Center for Justice released a study a week ago that, based on information from 30 cities, indicates the crime rate is holding steady so far this year over 2015 levels. It said a handful of cities, however, appear to be accounting for a disproportionate amount of the violent crime. The number of murders reported by law enforcement agencies in four cities alone — Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. — is showing a 20 percent increase, the study said.
"It's being driven by pockets and it's not a nationwide problem per se," Chettiar said.
Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, which gathers material from more than 60 large cities in the United States and Canada, said the latest FBI statistics mirror what his group has been seeing.
"The increase is not off the charts by any stretch of the imagination," Stephens said. While it would be wrong to say the U.S. is experiencing a crime wave, it also would be wrong to say there isn't a problem, he said.
"I think this should cause people to be a little concerned — not panicky or anything — but a little concerned about what's going on," Stephens said.