Murder On Main Street

On Dec. 3, a gunman walked into the Nice-Twice thrift shop in downtown Fresno, Calif., and leveled Betty Brukhart-Pereira, the store's 44-year-old manager, with two shotgun blasts. It wasn't robbery, apparently. Two weeks later, the police arrested a suspect in what they viewed as a possible random killing. It was a chilling example of how life is changing in fast-growing Fresno, where homicides were up about 60% in 1990 (chart).

Fresno (pop. 350,000) isn't the only medium-sized town ducking for cover. In 1990, once-safe smaller cities nationwide saw dramatic increases in drive-by shootings, gang rampages, and other violent behavior that was long the province of major urban centers. Homicide records were shattered last year in Bridgeport, Conn., Milwaukee, Providence, Richmond, Va., and even in placid St. Paul, Minn. While such communities are fighting back with neighborhood watches and youth programs, smaller cities seem to have become permanent homes to many of the ills that plague big cities--too many gangs, too many guns, too many drugs. "We're really not immune," declares Fresno Mayor Karen Humphrey.

For Americans, 1990 will be remembered as a year of living dangerously. When the final numbers come in, the nation's 1990 body count is expected to grow 7% to 10% over 1989's, to about 23,000, and could break the 1980 record of 23,044. Big cities continue to set the standard when it comes to carnage. New York City is expected to post a record 2,200 or so homicides for 1990.

RANDOM TERROR. Why is that kind of violence spilling over into smaller communities? One reason is that smaller cities are often used as staging grounds for transplanted big-city gangs. For instance, New York gangs have turned Bridgeport into something of a drug bazaar for wealthy Connecticut suburbs such as Fairfield and Stratford. Similarly, Chicago gangs have expanded their drug trade into smaller markets.

Their arrival into smaller communities has often meant more random violence. "A lot of the people being brought in with shot wounds now are innocent bystanders," says Dr. Joseph C. Darin, chairman of emergency medicine at Milwaukee County Medical Complex. "People are just blowing each other away," adds Nick Davis, a community activist who has worked with city officials to close St. Paul crack houses.

Smaller cities in states where gun-control laws are lax also draw big-city crooks looking to restock their weapons arsenals. States such as Florida and Louisiana are gun-buying havens. The easy availability of arms explains why the U. S. is home to an astounding 180 million guns, criminal experts estimate.

BABY BANG. The small-city murder wave comes at a time when recession has already put most local budgets under a strain. Even so, smaller communities aren't sitting still. In Milwaukee, local officials have set up a special drug court to speed prosecutions. Drug cases now take about two months, rather than a year, to come to trial. In Fresno, city hall has put together a staff of 50 community-service officers, who aren't armed and receive half the typical cop's $35,000 salary, to help organize neighborhood crime watches.

Such community-based policing does help. But smaller cities need to hire more armed cops to deter violent crime. And with state governments increasingly pushing their budget woes down to the local level, that's not easy. To help cope with California's deficit woes, cities must pay their county governments roughly $100 a head to process and book suspects into county jails. That will cost Fresno's already strapped budget about $3 million a year and may force the city to cut back on police, says Humphrey.

Unfortunately, smaller cities are in for even more mayhem. Criminologists are forecasting a bloody decade ahead as the ranks of 14- to 21-year-olds swell. So expect the streets of once-peaceful cities such as Fresno and St. Paul to get even tougher. Says Sergeant Michael Guthrie of Fresno's homicide unit: "There seems to be a proliferation of violence." To the family of Betty Brukhart-Pereira and other murder victims, that hardly comes as a surprise.

      Cities with new records         1989    1990   *  Homicides per 1,000
      for homicides                                           1990
      BRIDGEPORT, CONN.                 36      60            0.47
      FRESNO, CALIF.                    42      68            0.20
      MILWAUKEE                        112     164            0.26
      RICHMOND, VA.                    102     114            0.51
      NEW YORK CITY                  1,905    2,200  (est.)   0.31
      U.S.                          21,500   23,000  (est.)   0.09
Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.