BOSTON — In an effort so successful it seems almost magical, crime in the nation's largest cities has plummeted again this year.
For some metro areas, including Seattle, Houston, and Boston, the decline is part of a four- or five-year pattern. For others, such as New Orleans, the drop in reported crime is new. In yet others, statistics show mixed results: Miami last year curbed rape, robbery, and car theft, but its homicide rate increased.
Across the board, the numbers tell a dramatic story of what can happen when law-enforcement agencies cooperate, communities band together to fight crime, and police rethink their tactics.
*In New York City, the number of murders has been cut in half from its peak of 2,245 in 1990. This year's 978 murders are the fewest since 1968. Theft and assault have also dropped significantly. Reports of robbery and auto larceny are down 17 percent from last year, and assault is down 14 percent.
*In Boston, the number of homicides is at a 30-year low. This year's 58 homicides are down by more than one-third, compared with last year's 96. Moreover, 17 months have elapsed since a juvenile was killed with a gun anywhere in the city, a testament to Boston's effort to control gang activity. Burglary, too, is down 23 percent over a year ago.
*In Houston, the number of homicides through September 1996 has been slashed by 17 percent compared with 1995 numbers for the same time period. Aggravated assaults dropped 11 percent. Since the city's crime peak in 1991, homicides are down 55 percent, rape is down 53 percent, and auto theft has dropped by 21 percent.
Some criminologists say the statistics prove that cities have found a crime-fighting formula that works. "We can safely conclude that this [drop in crime] is a trend - it's here to stay for a long, long time," says Jack Calhoun of the Washington-based National Crime Prevention Council. "I think this is getting so broad-based, it's going to be very hard to lose."
Others say the drop is more a result of demographic and behavioral fluctuations, and is likely to rise again when the number of young men increases, immigration policies change, or high-level drug use makes a comeback. "You always have these fluctuations," says James Austin, executive vice president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. "There are a number of forces that are working together ... that have cumulatively produced a tipping effect."
In interviews with police departments from Detroit to Denver, the near-universal response is that there is no one answer to why crime has fallen so dramatically. Police officials say that reductions in crime are a product of comprehensive plans that target particular crimes or high-crime areas, include prevention programs, and require an influx of resources.
"It's a lot of things," says Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans. "It's cutting-edge enforcement programs, tough enforcement strategies, but also an emphasis on prevention ... and working with young people."
Since New York's new police commissioner took over last April, that force has focused on drug arrests. "We're most aggressively attacking drugs, taking it from the bottom up and the top down," says Commissioner Howard Safir.
The Miami police have placed a new emphasis on early intervention in domestic-violence cases as a way to bring down the homicide rate, since most murders occur between people who know each other.
Many departments credit the decentralization of policing with their improved crime rates. Opening more neighborhood precincts, they say, has made precinct captains accountable for the crime that occurs in their area. By spreading special units throughout the precincts, cities have been able to tailor crime-fighting to an area's needs and improve community ties.
"Most of our successes come from the rapport we've developed with the community," says Seattle's Lt. Emett Kelsie.
One unexpected result of the drop in crime and the shift in policing tactics: Fewer police officers (117) were killed in the line of duty last year, the lowest figure since 1960.