Good News on Crime Rates May Be Lull Before the Storm

WHILE violent crime among youths rose markedly last year, recent urban crime figures across the country show the overall US crime rate down sharply in 1995.

Even high-crime areas in New York City, Chicago, and Atlanta had fewer murders, rapes, and serious felonies. New York, for example, had the largest two-year drop since World War II.

Chicago's murder rate fell from 923 homicides in 1994 to 810 in 1995. Some 399 fewer homicides were reported in New York, a one-third reduction. In both cities, as well as in San Diego and Houston, overall crime in categories ranging from burglaries and car thefts to assault and rape dropped in the past 12 months.

Good news breaches the crime front so infrequently that experts and law officers express real perplexity about the decline - and offer various theories to explain it.

They also warn about jumping to overly optimistic conclusions, particularly since crime trends have gone up for decades. A national council of prosecutors and police officials Friday made public a report arguing that the country is in a "lull before the crime storm" - which it says will hit as the number of 14- to17-year-olds increases in the next 10 years.

Criminologists offer a variety of explanations for the current crime drop: The explosive crack market that brought money and death to street corners in the1980s has stabilized. More criminals are behind bars. The baby-boom population is aging and less prone to violence. Police are more sophisticated in patrolling city neighborhoods.

But these explanations do not represent certainties. "Nobody has a clue about this drop," says David Kennedy, senior research analyst at the Program on Criminal Justice at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "Something significant may be happening out there, but we just don't know yet."

"It's Newton's law of criminology," says James Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. "What goes up must come down.... Despite the drop, most crime levels are still higher than during the mid-1980s."

Police department officials argue that they have learned from the mistakes of the 1970s and '80s, and that a more professional attitude among police, and high-tech computer mapping and surveillance techniques, have made their mark inside cities.

"We've come a long way from the late '70s when we acted like "911" [the emergency police line] was a cure-all," says one 26-year veteran of the Boston Police Department. Boston recorded a drop in violent crime as of last August. "We have a lot of prevention programs out there now," the Boston officer notes.

Dr. Fox says the New York City Police Department, especially, has become "more professional, with higher morale," under new police commissioner William J. Bratton.

Yet what spoils the good-news-on-crime story is youth violence. The rise of brutality among the young is a stark problem - "historically unprecedented," says Dr. Kennedy.

While the rate for murders committed by those older than 25 is down, the rate for teens is growing. Nor does there appear to be a break in the trend.

The US murder rate among teens aged 14 to 17 rose 18 percent between 1990 and 1994, according to figures released in last Friday's council report. For individuals aged 18 to 24, the rate increased 2 percent.

Authored by John DiIulio of Princeton University in New Jersey, the council report points to demographics showing a 20 percent increase in the teen population by the year 2005.

"If nothing is done, crime is going to get worse," says Fox, whose research contributed to the report. Fox argues that cuts in after-school programs and the increase in the number of teens who are unsupervised and "idle" contributes to the violence. "About 40 percent of teen violence occurs in the time after school and before dinner," he notes.

Nor has the crime rate dropped across the board. In cities surrounding New York, such as Newark and Elizabeth, and in Hartford, Conn., the crime rate increased, though not dramatically. In Camden, N.J., however, the murder rate shot up so high in the past year that state police have recently been sent in to patrol the streets.

The current focus in many police departments is on gangs and drugs. In Chicago last year, gang slayings were reduced by 24 percent - partly attributable to police efforts.

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