WASHINGTON -- The number of U.S. households experiencing violent or property crimes fell to less than one in four last year, the Justice Department reported yesterday, but FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said that Americans should take little comfort in the decline.
The 23 percent victimization rate for 1992 was down from 24 percent in 1991 and 32 percent in 1975, the first year the survey was taken, the Justice Department found in its latest survey of households.
"Any reduction in crime that can be measured is obviously a positive result," Mr. Freeh said in an interview. "But the percentages we're talking about . . . should not give any of us the comfort level that we deserve and should strive for.
"We have a serious, deadly problem with respect to violent crime, personal and property crimes."
Violent crime edged upward slightly last year, to 5 percent of U.S. households from 4.9 percent in 1991, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found. In 1975, 5.8 percent of households experienced violent crime.
The National Crime Victimization Survey differs from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports -- which counts only those crimes reported to police -- because it is conducted by interviewing 99,000 occupants aged 12 or older in about 49,000 housing units every six months.
Households headed by Latinos and blacks suffered an attempted or completed crime at a higher rate than did white households -- 31 percent for Latinos, 27 percent for blacks and 22 percent for whites, the survey reported.
Violent crimes -- rape, robbery and assault -- were experienced by 7.6 percent of Latino households in 1992, vs. 7.1 percent for blacks and 4.8 percent for whites, according to the survey.
While the survey found that the percentage of white households experiencing crime was at its lowest level in 18 years, the proportion of black households touched by crime has not changed significantly since 1989.
As in earlier years, households in the Western United States showed the highest victimization at 28.5 percent in 1992, followed by 23.4 percent in the South, 20.9 percent in the Midwest and 18 percent in the Northeast.
The survey showed urban households to be the most crime-vulnerable, with 28.1 percent victimized, vs. 16.9 percent of those in rural areas and 21.4 percent in the suburbs.
"Although any reported reduction is a good thing to hear, given all the other information we have and just the common sense of the American people who live in the countryside and in the cities, I don't think we're doing very well at all," Mr. Freeh said.
The survey does not include homicides, counting only those crimes for which the victim can be interviewed, such as robberies, assault, fraud, rape and kidnapping.
But the Bureau of Justice Statistics said that this did not noticeably affect the survey estimates. Preliminary FBI estimates for 1992 are that homicides increased by 6 percent from the 24,703 reported in 1991.