Atlanta — Concerned citizens are making a difference in the battle against crime, according to some of the nation's top police officials.
Speculating on why the rate of ''serious'' crime in the United States seems to have leveled off - since about 1973 by one federal measure - these officials credit increased public willingness to get involved in fighting crime.
Howard Rogers, chief of police of Evanston, Ill., just north of Chicago, gives much of the credit for a ''drastic decrease in all categories'' of crime there to such citizen efforts as joining ''neighborhood watch'' programs (keeping a closer eye on nearby homes, especially when the occupants are away), taking steps to protect their own homes or businesses better, and assisting the police.
Most other top police officials interviewed here during a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police echoed similar praise for citizen involvement. But some police chiefs see no increase in public cooperation.
The police department in Casa Grande, Ariz., put on 74 crime prevention programs in the past few years. But Police Chief George Coxey says, ''Nobody got serious; nobody picked up the ball.'' Citizen apathy on crime prevention is high , he said. And a New York state police chief says he thinks fewer people are reporting crimes.
Census Bureau data shows that nearly one-third of US households are touched by some kind of crime each year - a figure that has changed little since 1973. Those figures are based on asking people in some 60,000 households if they have been a victim of crime. The bulk of the crimes reported in these surveys is not ''serious crimes'' such as murder, rape, or armed robbery, but theft and assault.
FBI statistics, based only on crimes reported to local police then reported to the FBI, showed a leveling off of serious crime from 1980 to '81. Some criminologists attribute this to a decline in the number of young people in age categories considered most likely to commit crimes.
Police are also getting ''more sophisticated'' in their techniques, says Eldrin Bell, deputy chief of operations for Atlanta's police department.
In Johnston, R.I., near Providence, serious crimes have declined, but thefts are on the rise, says Police Chief William P. Tocco Jr. (The Census Bureau data show thefts and assaults are increasing sharply nationwide.)
Several police chiefs interviewed here criticized as small the amount of federal aid ($100 million) proposed in legislation now before Congress - legislation presidential adviser Edwin Meese III praised here. That's ''a drop in the bucket,'' said one Missouri police chief.