WASHINGTON - Violent crime in the United States, including murder and robbery, dropped 4.4 percent in the first half of 2009 and property crime like car thefts also dropped, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Monday.

The latest statistics suggest that U.S. violent crime could drop for a third full year in a row, a steady decline despite the harsh economic recession that some policymakers and police groups had feared would lead to an upward spike.

The number of murders plummeted 10 percent compared to the same six-month period in 2008, while robbery fell 6.5 percent and forcible rape dropped 3.3 percent, according to preliminary statistics released by the FBI.

Violent crime in all of 2008 fell 1.9 percent from 2007.

But in some cities hit hard by the economy, like Baltimore and Detroit, the murder rate climbed. In Detroit, hurt by the auto industry's woes, there were 163 murders reported in the first six months of 2009 versus 146 during the same period in 2008.

But other cities where murder rates had been high, like New York and Los Angeles, saw a drop off. In New York, there was a drop from 252 murders in 2008 to 204 reported during the first half of 2009.

The overall decline was not limited to violent crime. Property crimes dropped 6.1 percent during the first six months of 2009, with vehicle theft plummeting 18.7 percent and burglary falling 2.5 percent, the FBI statistics showed.

Reported cases of arson also fell during the first half of 2009, dropping 8.2 percent from the same period in 2008.

The FBI report did not offer an explanation for the declining crime rates.

Violent crime in all four regions of the country measured by the FBI fell. The only region that saw an uptick in property crimes was the southern United States, inching up 0.7 percent during the first half of 2009, the FBI said.

There was also a small increase in violent crimes in cities with populations of 10,000 to 24,999, rising 1.7 percent.

(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, editing by Will Dunham)