By Julia Harte
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Violent crime in the United States increased in 2015 but remained far below peak levels of the 1990s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Monday as presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump prepared for a debate that is likely to focus on public safety.
The FBI's annual report showed that the prevalence of murder, rape and assault edged up last year after decreasing for decades.
At 372.6 incidents per 100,000 people, the 2015 violent-crime rate is higher than the 2014 rate of 361.6 but well below the levels of the last decade, which never dipped below 400. The increase was most pronounced in big cities, the report found.
Coming on the day of the first debate between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, the report could "be turned into political football," said Robert Smith, a research fellow at Harvard Law School, in a teleconference on Friday with other crime experts.
Trump last week praised aggressive policing, including "stop-and-frisk" tactics that critics say unfairly target minorities.
Clinton has pushed for stricter gun control to help curb violence and has called for national guidelines on the use of force by police officers.
In 2015, there were an estimated 15,696 murders in the United States compared with an estimated 14,164 the prior year, according to the report. Last year's crime rate was still lower than in 2012 and earlier years, the FBI found.
Crime was highest in the southern United States, the report found. At 45.9 per 100,000 people, the murder and manslaughter rate in the region was more than twice as high as in the West, the Midwest and the Northeast, according to the FBI. Rates of rape, assault and property crime were dramatically higher as well.
FBI Director James Comey warned last year that violent crime in the United States might rise because increased scrutiny of policing tactics had created a "chill wind" that discouraged officers from using aggressive tactics.
The rise in crime has been concentrated in big cities' segregated and impoverished neighborhoods. Experts said crime there can best be fought through better community policing and alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crime.
"We’re just beginning to see a shift in mentality in law enforcement from a warrior mentality ... to a guardian mentality," Carter Stewart, a former prosecutor for the Southern District of Ohio, said on the teleconference. "I don't want us as a country to go backwards."
In Chicago, 54 more people were murdered in 2015 than the year before, a 13 percent jump in the city's murder rate, according to an April study by New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Andy Sullivan in Washington; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Phil Berlowitz)