Sherwin Watkins knows firsthand that violent crime in America is on the upswing.

His 22-year-old son, Brian, was stabbed to death on a New York City subway platform last month as he attempted to protect his mother from a group of teenage muggers."People are afraid to go out of their homes," Watkins said in a telephone interview Friday from his home in Provo, Utah. The family had traveled to New York to attend the U.S. Open tennis tournament and thought they were in a "relatively safe" section of Manhattan. Instead, Brian Watkins became a crime statistic.

According to an FBI crime report released Sunday, murders in America's biggest cities jumped 20 percent in the first six months of this year, boosting the overall violent crime rate to 8 percent over the same period last year.

Nationwide, the Uniform Crime Report found violent crime increased 10 percent during the period. Leading the way were rape and assault, up 10 percent, followed by murder, up 8 percent, and robbery, up 9 percent.

The increase in the murder rate was yet another blow to cities that are grappling with high-profile crime problems. In Los Angeles, where weekend gang violence has become commonplace, killings jumped from 414 in the first half of 1989 to 449 this year.

In Washington, D.C. - where a particularly bloody turf war among crack cocaine dealers recently prompted Mayor Marion Barry to consider requesting help from the National Guard - the 218 murders in the first half of 1990 stayed slightly ahead of last year's record pace of 217.

And in New York, where the group of teenagers robbed the Watkins family to get money for dancing, murders increased from 837 in the first six months of 1989 to 1,077 this year.

The 10 percent rise in violent crime in the first half of 1990 comes on the heels of 5 percent jumps during the same period in 1988 and 1989.

The spike in violence has caught the attention of lawmakers in Washington, who are grappling with major anti-crime legislation.

"We have a national bloodbath on our hands," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, "and we must get serious about stopping the killing."

In a statement on the new FBI statistics, Biden said, "We are seeing the results of the three D's of violent crime: drugs, deadly weapons and demographics.

"Drug dealers are battling over turf, and we are waging an anemic war to stop it," he said. "Deadly weapons are being used to slaughter innocent bystanders, and the gun lobby is blocking action to stop it. And demographic trends are creating a new generation of young teens - in their high crime years - and we are doing too little to stop them from killing each other."

A Judiciary Committee report on crime issued earlier this year said the nation's murder toll dropped 18 percent between 1980 and 1985, but since then has gone up 22 percent.

Yet the Persian Gulf crisis and a federal budget standoff have shoved the anti-crime bill to the background, making it doubtful it will pass before Congress adjourns for the year.

The unsettling numbers for violent crime are in contrast to the overall crime picture. The midyear report card compiled by the FBI found that major crime in general remained unchanged from the year before, thanks in part to decreases in the more numerous property crimes.

Major crime as defined by the FBI includes murder, robbery, rape, assault, burglary, theft, auto theft and arson. The FBI began compiling the statistics in 1929.

Overall, the report found that burglaries nationwide were down 5 percent, thefts decreased by 1 percent and arson was down 3 percent over the year-ago period.

By region, the overall major crime rate increased 3 percent in the Northeast and 1 percent in the Midwest, but decreased 1 percent in the South and West.

No region escaped the upward trend in violent crime, however. Violent crime was up 11 percent in the Midwest and 10 percent in the West, followed by 9 percent jumps in the Northeast and South.

Watkins said that since his son was slain, his family has received "hundreds and hundreds" of cards and letters from people who are concerned about crime.

"People are fed up," he said. "They realize it could happen to anybody."

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(Additional information)

Rising murder rates

City 1990 1989

Los Angeles 449 414

New York City 1,077 837

Washington, D.C. 218 217