Murder is up, but alarms about a new surge in violence seem overstated-so far. Even before the fireworks launched from the French Quarter’s Jackson Square, 2006 went out with a bang in New Orleans-a handful of them, actually.

The three men were some of the last murder victims in an unusually bloody 2006. The year is expected to snap a long stretch of relatively good news on the homicide front nationwide, moving questions about the causes of crime increases off the back burner they have occupied for more than a decade.

Nationwide murder totals for 2006 will not be available until the fall, when the FBI releases its annual Uniform Crime Report. But an analysis by U.S. News shows a substantive, if uneven, increase in homicide in the nation’s 20 largest cities.

The 19 cities for which data were available had 4,152 homicides in 2006, compared with 3,919 the previous year-a 6 percent increase. Phoenix, which could not provide a year-end number, had neared its 2005 total of 238 by the end of November.

Murder is considered the most reliable crime statistic because such a high percentage of killings are reported. So the numbers are always watched closely as an indicator of crime trends.

The beginning of the crack epidemic brought soaring murder numbers-a 31 percent increase between 1984 and its peak in 1993. But as the drug’s popularity waned, so did murder, falling to around 16,000 a year and staying there for the early years after the millennium.

More recently, the plateau has ended. Homicide showed an uptick in 2005, and the FBI’s preliminary numbers from the first six months of 2006, along with the yearlong data collected by U.S. News, suggest the increase continued last year.

Some cities were hit especially hard. Philadelphia’s 406 homicides were the most in the City of Brotherly Love since 1997. Oakland, Calif., topped its 2005 homicide tally by more than 50, and Cincinnati’s 85 homicides were literally unprecedented.

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Anomalies. But there are plenty of caveats to the new numbers. New York City’s nearly 10 percent rise in murders-to 590-doesn’t look as bad after taking account of the city’s unusually high number of “reclassified deaths,” those resulting from injuries in prior years. And the city’s number of homicides is still historically low; more than 2,000 people were killed in New York in 1990 alone.

Houston neared its highest number of murders in a decade, but the increase largely matches the city’s surge in population from Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

Several big cities, including Dallas and San Francisco, bucked the murder trend completely. Washington, D.C., ended the year 27 murders shy of its 2005 total. Los Angeles’s historically undermanned police force saw its fifth straight year with a reduction of violent crime.

In fact, the 6 percent increase in murders in the country’s 20 largest cities is lower than the 9 percent rise the FBI charted in the first six months of the year. And once smaller cities are included, the FBI recorded only a 1.4 percent increase in that time. On average, smaller cities actually showed dramatic declines in their number of homicides.

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With the Dow reaching new records last year and relatively low unemployment, an economic explanation for the rise in violence would seem unlikely. But Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says the economy’s strong finish in 2006 belied a volatile year, with concerns about fuel costs and the end of the housing boom. The lack of economic stability especially impacts the urban poor, who are most likely to turn to crime, he says.

* It was summarized of TIME. January 15,2007