Violent crime rose slightly last year, but Americans experienced an almost 3 percent drop in total crime, the government reported.

New Justice Department figures for 1990 released Sunday showed that violent crime rose by 0.5 percent - from 5,861,040 incidents to 5,892,580 incidents.But total crime in America dropped 2.9 percent, according to preliminary figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. There were 34.8 million personal and household crimes in 1990, compared with 35.8 million in 1989, the agency reported.

"The overall decrease results largely from last year's 8 percent decline in the rate of personal thefts without direct contact between the victim and the offender," said Steven Dillingham, director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

"Those thefts, which involve such offenses as stealing personal belongings from public places or from an unattended automobile parked away from home, comprise 95 percent of all personal thefts and about 66 percent of all crimes against individuals," Dillingham said in a statement.

The big crime increase last year occurred in the category of automobile theft - which rose 19 percent to a total of 1.4 million "completed" thefts of cars, vans and trucks and 770,000 "attempted" thefts.

The figures are derived from Census Bureau interviews. Some 97,000 people in 48,000 homes were interviewed, the Justice Department said. They were asked about any crimes they had experienced during the previous six months.

The numbers showed about 13.3 million personal and household crimes were reported to police last year - similar to the 1989 figure.

Significantly, however, 62 percent of offenses "were never brought to official attention," the Justice Department said.

Total personal crime dropped 4.1 percent - from 19.6 million crimes in 1989 to 18.8 million last year. The category includes rapes, robberies, assaults and thefts.

The number of rapes dropped 18.3 percent last year, the new figures showed, while total robberies rose 2.2 percent. But "completed" robberies dropped 0.5 percent.

Total household crimes dropped 1.4 percent last year, from 16.1 million crimes to 15.9 million crimes. The category includes burglaries, larcenies and motor vehicle thefts.