There's no question about it: A mayor who takes a strong stand against crime can generally have an effect on it.
After Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne and her husband moved in March 1981 into the city's troubled Cabrini-Green public housing project - the scene of 11 murders and 30 shootings already that year - serious crime in the neighborhood for the last half of the year fell 51 percent from the comparable period the year before.
San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, elected three years ago, says it is critical for mayors to set a philosophical tone in their cities that crime simply won't be tolerated.
''I think it's important to have a strong, tough attitude that accepts no excuses as to why crime happens - whether the argument is poverty, drugs, or not getting along with one's family,'' she says.
Mayor Feinstein's get-tough campaign received a boost this week when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed her long-sought ban on possession of most handguns by residents.
Even so, mayors and police departments cannot do the job alone. The consensus in a lively question-and-answer session on crime at the recent US Conference of Mayors was that citizen involvement is the key to preventing and controlling crime in the nation's largest cities.
''Only when citizens know and trust police officers can the officers be truly effective,'' said Patrick Murphy, president of the Police Foundation.
In Chicago, for instance, information supplied by thousands of citizen volunteers working with the police department led to the arrest of 2,700 suspected wrongdoers in 1981. An arson hot line and reward system are credited with reducing arson in Chicago that year by 25 percent.
And as Mayor Byrne says of the drop in crime at the housing project where she lived for three weeks: ''Much of the credit goes to the people of Cabrini-Green who said 'enough' to living in fear and with violence.''
Virtually every large city now has at least one, if not several, citizen crime-fighting programs. New Orleans Mayor Ernest N. Morial says the city's Neighborhood Police Anti-Crime Council, established largely to improve communications between police and citizens, has been an effective forum for airing complaints and has led to a more candid, relaxed relationship. But he says it has also evolved into a major force in itself for crime prevention.
''Citizen participation is really the only way to achieve success in fighting crime,'' Mayor Morial insists.
In Indianapolis, cabdrivers and even youngsters have been recruited into the citizen crime-fighting effort, according to Mayor William Hudnut III. He says Operation Kid Watch teaches children how to watch for, prevent, and report crime. City bus and cab drivers, who have a direct line into police headquarters on their two-way radios, are encouraged to report anything suspicious spotted in the course of their travels.
Some cities are trying to get a better handle on the crime problem by tighter , more effective management of their police departments.
Houston Mayor Kathryn Whitmire, elected this year on a platform of running the city in a more businesslike manner, says that not everyone in the police department agreed that this approach was ''appropriate'' for law enforcement. Nevertheless, she hired an executive search firm, which helped her bring aboard a new police chief from Atlanta - the first nonresident to hold the job in more than 40 years and the first black. She says his three-year plan includes putting more than 10 percent of the current police force on the streets by a combination of more overtime and the substitution of civilian workers in office jobs.
Mayor Whitmire says she was surprised to discover that state civil service laws kept top police personnel from considering job performance or ability when making promotions. Test scores and seniority are now the only criteria that may be used. Terming that an ''unacceptable'' management practice that could never work in the business world, the mayor has embarked on a campaign to exempt Houston from the law.
In San Francisco, where crime so far this year is down 7 percent, a more businesslike approach to policing and an effort to improve morale in the department have been pushed, Mayor Feinstein says. Noting that prompt arrests are a strong deterrent to crime, one management objective was to improve response time to calls. The mayor said response time has dropped from 8 minutes two years ago to 4 minutes or less now. Mayor Feinstein also says that 350 more officers have been hired over the last few years and that more have been assigned to a ''beat'' again - a system that makes citizens feel safer.
The mayors stress that a resurgence of basic family values and more discipline can be crucial in preventing crime. Mayor Feinstein recalls being urged by one parent to enforce the city's 11 p.m. curfew because that parent was having trouble getting her child to come home. When the mayor asked the age of the youngster, she was told he was 10.