America is getting even safer

In 2000, violent crime dropped 15 percent - the largest decline ever recorded.

America just keeps getting safer and safer.

Violent crime plummeted a surprising 15 percent last year, the biggest decline ever recorded by the Justice Department's National Crime Victimization Survey. The drop, across almost all categories from simple assault to rape, also affected all demographic groups - women, men, blacks, Hispanics, and whites.

In all, there were 1 million fewer crimes in 2000 than in 1999.

The drop, as well as its size, surprised many criminologists - in part, because a recently released FBI crime report found a leveling off of the crime rate after eight straight years of declines. The difference in the findings can be attributed to the different types of crime the two reports measure.

But it appears the factors that led to the almost decade-long drop in crime - the increased police presence on the streets, declining drug use, the aging population, and increased incarceration rates - are still working to make Americans safer in their daily lives.

"That's surprising. We've had a lot of good news," says Carolyn Rebecca Block, senior research analyst for the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority in Chicago. "But everybody's holding their breath, aren't they?"

That's at least partly because many criminologists expected that the crime rate would soon begin inching up again as the economy softens and a large number of young people start to come into their peak crime-committing years. The FBI's report this year appeared to reinforce that expectation.

It is drawn from police statistics from around the country, but doesn't include simple assaults - the largest type of crime in the US. The Victimization Survey is derived from the nation's second-largest household survey, which is done by the Census Bureau and includes unreported, as well as reported, crime. While it includes simple assault, it excludes homicide rates, which the FBI report includes.

As a result, the survey tends to be weighted more toward less serious crime than the FBI report.

Criminologist James Fox compared the two to weather measures - the FBI's statistics are like temperature, while the Victimization Survey is more like the wind chill factor. "The thing about wind chill factor - it's not just temperature, its how hard the wind is blowing," he says. "That's why temperature sometimes can give you a poor indication of how cold it feels. And for many people, it's the less serious things that make life unpleasant."

Able to walk in the park

For Maria Then, it wasn't just the little things. She felt imprisoned by the crime in her neighborhood. The Dominican pharmacist moved to New York's Washington Heights 13 years ago at the height of the crack epidemic. The streets were full of drug dealers, gangs of armed kids, and gunshots. The dark-eyed mother wouldn't even let her three children walk to the local bodega for a carton of milk in the middle of the day.

That has all changed now. She even takes her children to play into the park across the street, an unthinkable notion just a few years ago. "You can live more freely now," she says.

As in Washington Heights, declining drug use and the violence associated with it - along with a more community-oriented police practices - helped bring down the crime rate across the US.

But those are just two of the myriad reasons criminologists point to to explain the continuing drop. "The factors involved also include the good economy, high incarceration rates, and ... an older population," says Margaret Zahn, a criminologist at North Carolina State University. "People have also learned more about how to protect their property."

Many more people are also working together to reclaim their neighborhoods, like Jose Fernandez, a New York bodega owner. A few months ago, two armed men walked into one of his stores in the Bronx, stole $10,000, and threatened to kill the employees.

It made him so angry, he decided to take safety prevention into his own hands.

"We're reaching out to community leaders to try to get everyone involved," says Mr. Fernandez, who is also president of the New York State Bodega Owners Association. "It's a question of education and learning the impact that small things, like not reporting trouble, can have on everyone in the neighborhood."

Still 6.3 million crimes

Still, some criminologists worry that reports of the continuing crime rate drop could lead to complacency. And Calli Rennison, who wrote the Crime Victimization Survey, agrees. "We can't forget that there are still 6.3 million violent crimes that we're measuring in one year.... There's still a lot of work left to be done."

That's the general attitude in the financially ailing city of East St. Louis, Ill., where abandoned storefronts outnumber businesses, which seem split between check-cashing operations and used-clothing stores.

Inside Fashion Guys, manager Brian Jackson laughs when told about the new crime statistics. "Are you kidding?" he asks.

Things are certainly better than when he started at the store 10 years ago, when the city was dubbed the US "murder capital." But it's become only marginally less dangerous, and at night, "all bets are off." The only statistic that matters to him, he says, is that he doesn't become one.

Craig Savoye in St. Louis and Sara Miller in New York contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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