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Police Say Crime Increasing in Europe

November 19, 1990

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) _ Law enforcement officials say violent crime is on the rise in some of Europe’s traditionally law-abiding nations. Critics accuse them of stirring up fear to get bigger budgets.

The average homicide rate in Europe remains only about one-fifth that of the United States, which has approximately nine homicides per 100,000 people each year, according to the U.N. World Health Organization in Geneva.

Homicide rates for the Netherlands and Switzerland rose 20 percent and 13 percent respectively in 1989, according to police figures.

Norway reported a 29 percent rise in violent crime from 1986 through 1988 and Italian homicides increased by 35 percent last year, mostly in Mafia regions.

Rape and theft skyrocketed last year in Eastern Europe, accompaniments to economic instability and a deep-seated mistrust of police under the former communist regimes.

In Denmark, France and Portugal, however, the low homicide rates have hardly changed in recent years. Significant declines have been recorded in Britain, Germany and Belgium.

″Our whole society is getting more aggressive,″ said Commissioner Herman Bergsma of the Central Police Intelligence Service in Holland. ″What used to end up in fistfights now ends up in gunfights.″

The number of assaults with firearms in the Netherlands nearly doubled from 134 in 1985 to 245 last year, mainly because of killings by drug traffickers, Bergsma said.

According to WHO statistics, the homicide rate in this nation of 14.9 million people had been one of the world’s lowest, just above Britain and Ireland.

Herman Franke, a criminologist at the University of Amsterdam, believes police are classifying more crime as violent to support requests for larger budgets and more officers.

″Crime statistics are highly political,″ he said. ″They’re used to influence public opinion in every country.″

In the Norwegian parliamentary elections, the conservative Party of Progress went from 2 of the 165 seats to 22 on a wave of public anxiety that followed reports of the 29 percent growth in violent crime.

″Violent crime is not increasing,″ Franke said, ″only our sensitivity to it.″

Nils Christie, a University of Oslo criminology professor, said: ″Our biggest crime problem is the unfounded anxiety people feel.″

Although the murder rate in neighboring Sweden has barely changed in years, tighter gun laws are to take effect in 1991.

Total crimes reported in Poland rose from 137,000 in 1988 to more than 500,00 last year.

″The crime we witness today is a result of the political situation,″ said Janusz Wydra, deputy police chief of Warsaw. ″The more freedom there is, the less security.″

Poland has embarked on a conversion from communism to capitalism that has cost about 1 million people their jobs and driven most prices up more than 180 percent.

Franke, the Dutch criminologist, argued that skyrocketing statistics in former communist countries indicate the old regimes doctored figures for political reasons, not that crime has increased dramatically.

He conceded that homes and businesses in the new East European democracies are easy targets for thieves, since their owners have little experience with crime prevention.

″In Warsaw, the situation is terrifying,″ said Wincenty Grzeszczyk of the Polish General Prosecutor’s Department. Stores do a booming business in window grates, auto alarms, deadbolt locks and Mace.

Statistics in Czechoslovakia indicate crime has increased 400 percent in some Prague districts since President Vaclav Havel declared a general amnesty in 1989 for most prisoners jailed under the communists. The amnesty brought the release of about two-thirds of the prison population.

Muggings rose 250 percent in urban areas during the first six months of 1990 and total crime was up 138 percent in the same period, according to official figures.

Italy is the most crime-prone country in Western Europe. Last year’s 1,295 homicides reflected a 35 percent increase from 1988.

Britain tightened gun laws after a gun collector in Hungerford, 60 miles west of London, killed 16 people, including his mother, in August 1987, then took his own life. The homicide rate has fallen by half under the new laws.

Most European countries severely restrict gun ownership, but firearms are relatively easy to buy on the black market.

Police in Copenhagen found hundreds of hand grenades, mines, anti-tank rockets, handguns and rifles in the possession of a pro-Palestinian group that had robbed banks for seven years.

Still, Franke credited tough gun-control laws with making European cities relatively murder-free - because, he said, ″people can’t resort to guns to solve their quarrels.″