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Falling crime rates tempered by troubling exceptions

Low and falling crime rates were again seen across southwestern Pennsylvania with a few exceptions, including a dramatic one-year spike in homicides.

Major crimes fell 2 percent overall across the seven-county Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area in 2014, the most recent year for which FBI Uniform Crime Index data are available. And for a second consecutive year, the Pittsburgh MSA had the lowest overall crime rate among the 15 Pittsburgh Today benchmark regions.

The Pittsburgh MSA reported the lowest rates for burglary, car theft and forcible rape. And its rates of robbery and theft were lower than those in every benchmark region except Denver.

But the murder rate rose nearly 32 percent to 5.4 per 100,000 people over the previous year, putting the region in the company of St. Louis and Indianapolis as the only benchmark regions with increases in homicides.

As a rule, crime is higher in cities than across regions and Pittsburgh is no exception. The city’s overall rate for major crimes in 2014 stood at 4,011 per 100,000 people – almost twice the rate reported in the MSA as a whole. And the city’s murder rate was more than four times higher.

Compared with other benchmark cities, however, only Denver has lower crime than Pittsburgh overall. Homicide is another story. Only Baltimore, Detroit and St. Louis had murder rates higher than Pittsburgh’s. Homicides jumped 53.4 percent in Pittsburgh from 2013 to 2014 – the largest one-year increase among the benchmark cities.

Stark disparities in crime are also seen across city neighborhoods and races. In Pittsburgh, for example, 25 percent of gun-related aggravated assaults occurred in only four of the city’s 90 neighborhoods from 2010-2015, according to city police records. And 86 percent of homicide victims were African American.

The city’s experiment with community policing received a boost in 2014 when it was selected as one of the first six cities to pilot the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. The $4.75 million program supports efforts to evaluate police-community relationships and develop plans to improve procedural justice, reduce racial and ethnic bias and repair relations in neighborhoods where trust has eroded.