Inside America's 'safest' cities

Creative policing, after-school programs, and engaged citizenry keep

Can America's historic drop in crime continue?

In perhaps the most significant good-news trend of the past decade, cities nationwide have seen crime fall in virtually every category - from assault to burglary to homicide. Yet recent statistics show that those figures have begun to plateau, and, in some cases, even rise slightly.

Now, as mayors and police chiefs around the country look forward to the next decade, they are trying to glean lessons from the successes of the 1990s.

A Monitor analysis of the most recent homicide and robbery data compiled by the FBI indicates that America's safest big cities - surprisingly - lie along the Southwest border and along the Pacific Coast. The cities' successes are providing fresh case studies for others to follow.

"The most recent crunching of numbers is throwing a monkey wrench into the conventional wisdom that bigger gains have been in the older cities of the East," says Candace McCoy, a criminologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

"What's interesting is that robbery and murder are very different kinds of crimes yet they are following the same trend [in the South and West]," says Ms. McCoy. "Because this soaring economy is not going to go on forever, law enforcement will be zeroing in on these states with an eye toward what has worked and what hasn't."

In the categories of murder and robbery, El Paso, Texas; Austin, Texas; San Jose, Calif; and San Diego ranked in the top five safest cities in America for the first half of 1999 (see charts).

Although experts warn against drawing too simplistic comparisons and conclusions, some trends are common. In all of these cities, for instance, there has been an emphasis on going beyond traditional notions of community policing, which merely put more cops on the beat.

The programs include the involvement of other civic organizations in a communitywide approach to problems, from gangs to domestic violence. There have also been prevention programs aimed at extending the use of schools after hours, engaging the elderly with youths, cleaning up neighborhoods, and training citizens how to settle disputes without the intervention of police.

"It was real clear to us that a whole host of crime is learned early in the home, so that the sooner you intervene in that environment with professional care and counseling, the more effective you are in the long term," says William Lansdowne, police chief in San Jose.

Some of San Jose's success is attributed to old-fashioned hard work, courtesy of new top-down management from outside the department - a cure that has been tried and failed in other cities such as Los Angeles. But Mr. Lansdowne is also credited with new strategies that others will attempt to clone: a detailed analysis of homicide data to plan prevention strategies and collaboration with neighboring cities.

"Lansdowne did a lot of intelligence work on gang activity, which led to on-the-street methods to stop it," says James Fyfe, a criminologist at Temple University in Philadelphia. "And by realizing that criminals do not respect [city] borders, the collaborative efforts of [San Jose] with neighboring jurisdictions have become a national model."

Experts universally acknowledge that the economy has played a major role in the past decade's drop in crime. But they also mention three other key reasons: more severe sentencing laws, decreasing use of drugs such as crack cocaine, and the aging baby boomer generation, meaning that more of America is past the top crime-committing ages of 16 to 36 years old.

Yet analysts are also looking at demographics, which include diversity, density, and factors such as median income and education level.

"It has more to do with the populations that exist in a given community, their relative prosperity in a given period of time, and their propensity to act in lawful or unlawful ways to improve their lot," says Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.

With El Paso and San Diego, the presence of military installations and high-tech businesses has added stability. But the cities' growing Hispanic populations are perhaps more significant.

Crackdowns along the US border have significantly reduced crime in those cities, despite high-crime pockets in the neighboring Mexican cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. Moreover, Hispanics traditionally have very low crime rates, says John Werter, assistant chief of the San Diego Police Department.

Such attitudes carry a cultural dimension. "Murder and robbery have no part in the makeup of the Mexican ideal of macho," says Neil Morgan, a columnist at the San Diego Union Tribune.

Police in El Paso and Austin have used specially trained officers to target gangs. Neither city recorded a single gang-related murder in 1999.

In Austin, such efforts have been so successful that many residents say they don't give much thought to crime. "It's not an issue that I have to deal with," says Hill Abell, owner of Bicycle Sport Shop. "My big concern is my customers getting hit by cars. That's way bigger than crime."

Meanwhile, El Paso recorded only 14 murders last year, down from 47 in 1993 - even though El Pasoans continue to have a relatively low per capita income and nearly 9 percent are unemployed.

"The drop ... is a reflection of the citizens and their willingness to get involved in different aspects of policing," says Al Velarde, spokesman for the El Paso Police Department. "People are volunteering their time and are more willing to go to court to testify against people accused of crime."

Experts point to a comprehensive, grass-roots effort as the reason Boston has seen such a dramatic improvement in its rates of violent crime. Other cities and towns have turned to it as a model, especially in reducing juvenile violence.

That violence spiked in the mid-1980s, largely because of the crack-cocaine epidemic. But 1992 was a turning point. One defining moment came during a funeral in a violence-plagued neighborhood in which gang members began stabbing each other.

"The clergy were incredulous at the audacity and lack of respect," says Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston.

About 1,300 people were caught up in a cycle of fear, carrying guns to protect themselves and taking revenge against one another's groups. "There was this identifiable street dynamic that was operating among a relatively small number of chronic offenders," says David Kennedy, a senior researcher at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Everyone from academic researchers to probation officers joined members of the clergy and activists to reduce the violence. The results were dramatic. Serious crimes in Boston dropped by about 15 percent in both 1996 and 1997, compared with about 4 percent nationwide.

Kamalu MacPhillips, owner of a 7-Eleven store in the city's South End, says he can see the difference. In the 1980s, his store was robbed about twice a month, he says. In the past two or three years, it has only been robbed two or three times total.

"Sometimes [the police] call the store without being called," he says. "The patrol guy will call, 'Any problems?' That's encouraging."

Likewise, officials in Portland say they are beginning to reap the benefits of projects started 10 years ago, mainly community policing. One key process is called Neighbor Safe, in which precinct staff hold community forums to ask what kind of things people want their police to do.

"We share more information with neighborhoods and ask people to get involved with their community police," says Bruce Prunk, assistant chief of operations. "A lot of credit goes to the community, for folks getting involved. People are just getting out more, walking around and feeling safe."

But some people in the city say the feeling of safety doesn't necessarily translate into safer streets.

"I feel safe in Portland, but that doesn't mean Portland is safe," says Zed Schild, who grew up in the city and lives in the northwest section.

"You have poverty, and where you have poverty, you have more violence. Most of the crime around here is prostitution and drug dealing - it's not violent."

Staff writer Stacy A. Teicher in Boston, Robert Bryce in Austin, Texas, and Trevor Kearney in Portland, Ore., contributed to this article.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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