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U.S. Violent Crime Drops Record 7%

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Violent crime in the United States dropped by 7% in 1996, the fifth straight annual decline and the largest on record since the government began keeping track 35 years ago, the FBI said Sunday.

The reduction in the number of crimes reported to police across the nation was led by a record 11% drop in the number of murders. The positive direction was evident in a far steeper 36% decline in Santa Ana. And for the first time in 30 years, Huntington Beach had no murders.

The preliminary FBI statistics seem to confirm widely reported evidence of a dramatic reversal in the nation’s long-term trends in crime. The turnaround has been most striking in major cities, where residents once assumed that crime would inevitably get worse.

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Instead, safer streets are apparently beginning to lead to a higher quality of life in a number of the nation’s urban centers, and a debate has begun among experts in an effort to identify the factors contributing to the renaissance.

Hailing the new statistics, President Clinton and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno attributed the declines in part to the administration’s anti-crime policies.

“The continued downward trend over the past four years is further evidence that we are on the right track with increased community policing, tougher penalties and greater juvenile crime prevention,” Clinton said.

“President Clinton’s plan to combat crime is working,” echoed Reno. “Penalties are tougher, tens of thousands of illegal gun sales have been thwarted, more than 57,000 new police have been paid for, and we are helping more young people stay on the right path.”

The attorney general also used the occasion to press Congress to pass Clinton’s youth crime bill, which would provide more prosecutors and stiffer penalties for gang-related violence, make it tougher for youths to get guns, and launch new prevention programs.

Police officials in some cities have cited new, get-tough law enforcement policies as contributing factors in the declining rates of violent crime. Other experts have noted an increased appreciation among big-city officials that “zero tolerance” for minor infractions--graffiti, vandalism, loud music, petty brawls--tends to keep neighborhoods more vibrant and reduces the sense of fear and isolation that breeds serious crime.

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Yet the breadth of the downward trend in the FBI statistics suggests that deeper social and demographic forces may be at work. The decline seems to coincide with the aging of the huge baby-boom generation, the largest living population cohort. Most crimes are committed by young people, and now that baby boomers are moving firmly into middle age, they are well beyond their most crime-prone years.

Such a generational shift may help explain why the FBI reported that the violent crimes of murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault were down in every region of the country, in big cities, suburbs and rural areas alike. In the West, for example, violent crime fell by an average of 9%.

Across the country, every major category of violent crime posted a major decline. While murders fell the most, the number of rapes reported dropped by 3%, robberies by 8%, and aggravated assault by 6%. Property crimes--burglary, larceny and auto theft--also fell last year.

The total rate for all serious crimes declined by 3%, the biggest yearly decrease since 1982.

Los Angeles reflected the national trend, reporting that the number of murders in the city fell from 849 in 1995 to 709 last year--a 16.5% decline.

All categories of serious crime, as measured by the FBI’s overall crime index, fell by 11.6% in Los Angeles last year. The index consists of murders, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts reported to police. LAPD officials declined to comment on the report Sunday.

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Smaller jurisdictions in Southern California experienced similar declines. The number of murders reported in Anaheim, for example, fell by more than half, from 25 in 1995 to 12 last year, while the total number of serious crimes fell 15.8%. In El Monte, the number of murders plunged even more sharply, from 30 in 1995 to 9 last year.

Crime did not subside evenly throughout Southern California, however. Long Beach, for example, reported 95 murders last year, up from 80 in 1995, yet the city still reported an overall decline in serious crime of 14%. Long Beach police officials also declined to comment on the federal figures.

The FBI noted that the number of murders reported to police fell in each of the nation’s three largest cities. In addition to the decline in Los Angeles, the number of murders in New York fell from 1,177 in 1995 to 986 last year, while in Chicago, homicides dropped from 824 to 789.

One of the most dramatic statistical declines came in Oklahoma City, where the number of murders reported fell from 227 in 1995 to 67 last year. The figures for 1995 were skewed, however, by the 168 people killed in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.

The FBI statistics are based on crimes reported to 16,000 police departments nationwide.

The final 1996 tallies will be released in the fall, the FBI said.

* O.C. OUTPACES NATION: Sharp drop in murder rate highlights overall decline in serious crimes in county. B1

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