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Bright Lights, Big City, and Safe Streets

Urban dwellers bask in greater sense of security, as crime rates drop even further.

This year, Denise Malick will joyfully go about the chore of removing Christmas lights strung outside her Los Angeles home. In years past, by this time they've been stolen.

A few miles away, on Hollywood Boulevard, the prostitutes and drug dealers no longer hang out in front of Hamburger Hamlet. "People are coming down here again.... They feel more comfortable walking up and down the boulevard," says restaurant manager Robin Moor.

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In Manhattan, Greggor Petrovic is out walking his terrier on the Upper West Side and notices a different feel to the city. "It's definitely safer than [it was] a few years ago. There are more people out at night," he says.

Increasingly, statistics are confirming an emerging perception among urban residents: Many of America's cities, in small ways and large, are safer now than they have been in decades.

Last week, the nation's two biggest cities, New York and Los Angeles, reported the fewest homicides in 30 years and 20 years, respectively. Chicago, New Orleans, Dallas, Baltimore, and San Francisco also reported a continued fall in murder rates. While Denver, Detroit, and Nashville bucked the trend, nationwide homicides dropped 11 percent.

Reasons for the decline - which in most cases extend to each of the seven major crime categories that cities report to the FBI - are varied. And perhaps because of public skepticism or media story selection, Americans' perception of urban safety is only beginning to catch up with a five-year-old trend in many places.

Generally, surveys show that the public's fear of crime remains higher than it should be in light of such large drops in murder, assault, and robbery, says Eric Monkkonen, professor of public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles. "It may not be a rational response to a declining crime rate, but it may have something to do with putting more pressure on government and police to lower crime," says Mr. Monkkonen.

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has certainly paid heed to such sentiments. Mr. Giuliani eagerly takes credit for the drop in murders from a 1990 peak of 2,245 to 756 last year. On Thursday, he vowed to redouble his efforts by hiring 1,600 more officers, bringing the size of the department to a record 40,000 police.

In addition to force size, New York police credit the use of a computerized system that quickly determines the location of a crime by tracking emergency phone calls. It's a rapid-response program begun four years ago in conjunction with sweeping antidrug programs and vigorous enforcement of quality-of-life laws such as littering and panhandling.

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"Better policing won't solve everything, but it can't be denied that it has helped," says Tom Reppetto, director of the Citizen's Crime Commission, a private organization.

In Hollywood, the turnaround has come about since April, when area businesses hired off-duty police to patrol a six-block stretch of the boulevard, afflicted for years with drug dealing and illegal vendors. "We have people who haven't been to Hollywood for a couple of years, and they walk around and they're amazed [at the improvement]," says Kerry Morrison, executive director of the Hollywood Entertainment District.

Criminologists say the urban-crime drop is the result of several factors. More jobs have created fewer reasons to turn to crime, says Andrew Karmen, a sociologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Demographic trends also contribute to the homicide decline: There are fewer young men between 16 and 24. And there's the "little brother factor," which says that a generation of teenagers who witnessed personal tragedies are turning away from crime.

"We've noticed the drop in the percentage of funerals for teenagers here as a result of drive-by shootings," says the Rev. Leonard Jackson of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.

A waning of the crack epidemic that hit poorer urban neighborhoods in the mid-1980s is cited in a National Institute of Justice (NIJ) study as another key reason for the crime downturn. Tougher sentencing policies "would also suggest" another reason for less violent crime, says Pamela Lattimore, director of crime behavior at the NIJ.

But while tougher sentencing may bring down the crime rate, police work "has actually gotten more difficult," says David Hepburn, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League. The "three strikes" law, he says, makes criminals with previous offenses more aggressive when confronted by police. "They know that if they are caught that they're going back to prison, probably for the rest of their lives."

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