Former murder capital of US rocked by the lowest killing count in 20 years

David Usborne on the Big Apple's sudden rash of lawfulness

New York City - Branded for years as the crime capital of the world, New York City was armed this weekend with figures to show that things have changed. It recorded fewer murders in 1996 than in any year since 1968; the decline in the number of random murders by strangers, meanwhile, was especially dramatic.

As of Saturday, the tally of murders in the city stood at 972 for the year, less than half the record total of 2,245 murders committed in 1990; 1996 is set to be the least murderous year in New York City for almost two decades.

The end-of-year figures, released by the New York City Police Commissioner, Howard Safir, are especially striking, however, in highlighting the drop in random acts of murder.

In 1996, 19 per cent of murder victims in the city were killed by strangers, compared to 37 per cent in 1993. Four-fifths of the murders, therefore, were committed by people who were acquainted with their victims.

"The city is now safer in that, one, you are less likely to be murdered, and two, you are less likely to be attacked by a stranger," Mr Safir said. "It's the kind of thing that people always talk about, that if you go to New York somebody's going to come out of an alley and shoot you."

There was evidence also of a drop in the number of guns on New York's streets. Arrests for illegal possession of firearms were down by 20 per cent last year. Moreover, there were 21 per cent fewer shootings in the city and 20 fewer victims of shootings, the police figures said.

The statistics are good news for the city's tourist industry. They are also a boost to the Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who, in spite of being a Republican in a heavily Democrat city, is reckoned to have an easy path to re-election next year largely because of the sudden drop in the city's crime rates.

The figures will also give more fuel to the debate about where credit is due for the reversal of New York's crime problem. Although crime has been dropping all over the United States, especially in large cities, the decline in New York has been especially marked and exceeds the national average.

Contributing factors are likely to include the waning of the crack- cocaine epidemic, an improving city economy and national efforts to make guns less easily available.

Mr Safir, however, attributed the latest statistics to new policing strategies in New York, in particular a crack-down on quality-of-life crimes like subway fare-dodging and urinating in public, that have also discouraged criminals from carrying guns.

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