Decline in crime puts a polish on the Big Apple

Strolling through Central Park at dusk with your wallet poking out from your back pocket is still not advised, but there is good news on crime in New York City. If the statistics are to be believed, there is much less of it.

So steep is the decline in New York's crime figures,that even Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is professing bewilderment. If the trend continues, the Big Apple will even fall off the FBI's list of 50 most crime-ridden US cities.

Most vivid is the drop in the murder rate. While statistics for most other crimes are notoriously unreliable, where homicides are concerned they usually tell a straight story. In 1994 the murder ratewas down a fifth over the year before. Preliminary police department figures for January and February this year show a drop of 40 per cent compared with last year.

Even the dreaded subway system has been declared more secure. Serious crimesunderground decreased nearly 22 per cent last year over the year before. There were 11,776 crimes on the subway last year, including 11 murders. Since 1990, the subway crime level has dropped 50 per cent.

"Nobody can be sure exactly what is going on", Mayor Giuliani admitted when quizzed on the figures. Needless to say he and Police Commissioner, William Bratton, are celebrating.

"The city is increasingly moving away from its erroneous title of `The Crime Capital of America', Mr Bratton declared earlier this week.As of the middle of last year, New York stood at number 47 on the FBI's official rankings of US cities according to rates of serious crime.

It is a picture that is much different from that at the end of the Eighties, during which violent crime exploded in New York as in many other US cities. It culminated in mid-1990 with a string of violent murders and a front- page appeal in one city tabloid to the then mayor, David Dinkins: "Do something, Dave".

The Giuliani administration points to its efforts to streamline police actions and focus on so-called quality of life strategies by arresting prostitutes, drug-dealers and road-side hustlers.There was a 21 per cent rise in arrests in the city last year. The overall serious felony rate in 1994 was down 11.7 per cent.

Criminologists acknowledge the drop in homicide rates as significant but suggest that demographic variables that have nothing to do with police action may have been a factor. There has been a population decline, for instance, in the 16-to-23 crime-prone age group in the city. Then there is the simple fact that many of those who have murdered in the past are now incarcerated.

James Fox, Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, cautions that "sometimes things look good but only in comparison to something that is very bad. We had a huge increase in crime statistics in the late Eighties and to some extend the improvement in the Nineties is relative to a terrible situation".

The broader crime figures are meanwhile considered less than scientific. It has long been estimated that about half of all assaults and even rapes go unreported. Meanwhile, as New Yorkers have become more or less inured to petty burglaries and assaults and more cynical about their police protectors, the incentive to report those crimes has almost vanished.

The New York trend, meanwhile, is not isolated. Overall, 22 of America's largest cities reported at least some modest declines in crime rates in 1994.

Some reported even steeper drops than New York for the first six months of last year, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, El Paso and San Antonio.