Crime statistics are based on scientific methods, but there's clearly an art to interpreting their meaning.
Take the "Crime Victimization Survey" released yesterday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. It announced that in 2000 the United States experienced a remarkable 15 percent reduction in violent crime. That's the largest one-year drop since such surveys began 28 years ago (see story, page 1).
The causes for the decline - which was particularly sharp for simple assault and sexual assault - aren't easy to pinpoint. They can be culled from a fabric of factors, ranging from better police practices to a better economy to an aging population.
In many cities, police are emphasizing better relations with the public, including cooperation with neighborhood groups and churches. And communities that give young people more opportunities for recreation and intellectual development are helping reduce crime. So are neighborhood crime-watch groups and school programs putting more character education into classrooms.
Tougher law enforcement can play a role, too. New York City's policy of cracking down on minor crime - such as vandalism - to discourage all crime has been shown to have an impact.
This drop in crime can be sustained by further debate on what's working and what's not. Effective work against crime requires both vigilant law enforcement and greater emphasis on prevention.
The survey, which asks people what crimes they've experienced, reveals that 48 percent of violent crime still goes unreported. That shows police still need to build more trust in their communities.
Most of the dropoff in crime was in the South and Northeast, while the West had little change. Rural areas, too, didn't experience the crime decline that many cities did. And blacks continue to have the highest rate of violent victimization. These are all problems that argue against complacency.
The crime wave that began in the 1960s has been declining rapidly for almost a decade. Some solutions - such as long mandatory sentences for minor drug offenses - are now being reconsidered. Others, such as home security systems, are a way of life. The task now: Sustain progress that has produced a less-fearful society.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor