Why Economy Boom Means Crime Bust for Sun Belt City

The boomtown days are back here in the nation's seventh-largest city, with a surge in new residents, new housing - and serious crimes.

At a time when the FBI is reporting that crime is dropping throughout the United States, including major urban centers, this Sun Belt city is bucking that glowing trend. Reported crime here rose 9.2 percent in 1995 over the previous year, while other US cities of more than 1 million residents posted an average 6 percent drop.

The Phoenix crime statistics stand against a backdrop of a robust local economy (which is outperforming the national average) and a rise in out-of-state residents who come here in search of jobs. But this expansion has also triggered some growing pains that probably have had an effect on crime, says Mike McCullough, spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department.

Each year, about 120,000 new residents move to metropolitan Phoenix from out of state, attracted by the warm climate and casual Southwest lifestyle. In Chandler, a community on Phoenix's southeast side, newcomers are arriving this year at a rate of 1,000 each month, fueling a huge new-housing market.

It is also a highly transient population: For every three newcomers who relocate here each year, two move out of state, according to data. About 50 percent of the current residents have lived here five years or less, and within the next five years about 40 percent will leave.

That pattern of constant turnover can frustrate the work of neighborhood-watch groups, adding to the crime problem.

"When you have a home that is rented, or is bought and sold four or five times within a period of three or four years ... that affects a lot of the block watches and citizens on patrol, because they are designed to get to know your neighbor," Mr. McCullough said.

In 1994 and again last year, Phoenix posted a record 244 homicides. Even so, McCullough noted, that number is fewer than New Orleans, a city about half the size of Phoenix, which registered 365 murders last year. Atlanta, too, another high-growth Sun Belt state, experienced a 4 percent increase in overall crime in 1995, according to the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report released earlier this week.

In fact, Arizona ranks somewhere in the middle nationwide in the actual number of violent crimes, according to Dennis Palumbo, an Arizona State University justice-studies professor. But Arizona ranks in the top 10 states in jailing criminals.

In appearance, "we're really a tough-on-crime kind of state, but it doesn't necessarily come out in the evidence" of actual serious crimes, says Mr. Palumbo, who is writing a book on crime in America.

Nationwide, crime dropped in every category and in every region, falling most sharply - 4 percent - in the Northeast, according to the FBI survey. The Midwest experienced a 2 percent decline, while the South and West had 1 percent reductions.

Like communities across the US, Phoenix and many surrounding municipalities put their police resources into preventative measures, such as community-based policing programs. For the last three years, officers have led neighborhood block-watch meetings, worked with children in the schools, organized graffiti paint-outs, and ran drug-awareness programs.

But results have been mixed. Critics contend that police officers are taken away from other sections of the 2,300-member department, such as traffic-accident investigations, to engage in community policing.

McCullough says the reassignments are an effort to place resources where the communities themselves have set priorities in combatting their own problems.

"Right now, those priorities are drug- and gang-free neighborhoods. They've made those issues paramount in their neighborhoods," he says. "We have to be reflective of their wishes, their priorities, and their concerns. And that is exactly what community policing is designed to do."

Over the long term, he predicts, community policing will deter serious crime. "It's a proven fact that the larger you get, the more potential [there is] for problems," McCullough says. "Your resources are stretched to the limits. You do the best you can with what you have."

Community activist Lydia Abril says police have been responsive in her neighborhood. She heads the Friendly Corner block watch in the Maryvale precinct, which is rife with prostitution and drug houses. This neighborhood, where Ms. Abril has lived most of her life, is regarded as one of the city's toughest areas.

A cafeteria aide at a local school, she says the most effective way for her to keep tabs on potential troublemakers in the neighborhood is by volunteering in school activities, including as a school crossing guard.

As for efforts to rid the area of its ills, she says, "It's still here. It comes and goes. It's a matter of persisting."

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