WASHINGTON - The violent crime rate went up 17% last year, ending a general decline in violence that began nearly 20 years ago, according to a new federal survey of crime victims.
The Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey also found an 11% increase in the rate of property crimes, including household burglaries and car theft.
The survey represents a sharp departure from recent years and a preliminary report produced earlier this year by the FBI, which found that violent crime had declined by 4% during the first six months of 2011.
The final FBI Uniform Crime Report, which collects data from police departments across the country, is expected out later this month.
The victimization survey attributed the entire increase in 2011 to a 22% jump in the number of serious and simple assaults, according to the review.
Criminal justice analysts, while noting a substantial increase in assaults, said it was too early to determine whether the 2011 jump represented an anomaly or signaled a turnaround in the sustained decline in violent crime.
"I wouldn't make much out of it,'' said University of Maryland criminologist Charles Wellford. "One year does not make a trend, and these institutional measures (the Justice survey and the FBI crime report) are best at measuring trends.''
Wellford said the methodological differences between the Justice survey and the FBI reports may have some bearing on the recent survey's findings.
Specifically, the survey does not track the crimes of homicide and arson, while the FBI report does not track simple assaults (those not involving weapons or serious injury) in its annual reviews of major crimes.
Carnegie Mellon University criminologist Alfred Blumstein suggested that because there was little or no change in other violent crimes in the survey, the surge in assaults could be due to deeper probing by survey interviewers.
He said robbery, which is one of the most likely crimes to be reported by victims, declined by 2%, according to the survey.
"I think it is too early to say what is going on exactly,'' Blumstein said. "I think we should wait for the results of the (FBI report later this month). If that tracks what the survey is showing then I would it would represent a flag that we need to investigate.''
The Justice Department said in a statement that there was "no evidence to suggest'' that changes in victim interviewing tactics prompted the sudden increase in assault reports.
"The data collection process and questionnaire has been generally the same since 1993, and no substantive changes occurred during the 2010-2011 period,'' the Justice statement said.
Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY