Page last updated at 14:38 GMT, Wednesday, 12 August 2009 15:38 UK

Major US cities hail crime reduction

By Claire Prentice
BBC News, Washington

A Washington DC police officer consults his in-car computer
In-car computers are helping DC police reduce crime rates

It is mid-morning and, despite being several hours into his shift, Officer Frank Buentello of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department has not received a single call for assistance.

It was a different story when he started his police career in Washington DC 20 years ago.

"The city has really cleaned up. Even 10 years ago this street here was a crime hotspot," he said, pointing towards bustling Columbia Road.

The murder rate in the District of Columbia is down 22% this year, with 84 murders so far in 2009.

The district is on track to have fewer killings than in any year since 1964.

It is a remarkable turnaround for an area which, as recently as 1991, was dubbed "the murder capital of the United States".

New technology

And DC is not alone. Across America, major cities have experienced a significant drop in violent crime, a definition which includes murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

They include once-notorious crime hubs like New York and Los Angeles, both of which are on track for their lowest homicide rates in 40 years.

Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Minneapolis are among other cities seeing notable reductions in murders.

Mr Buentello and DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier say a return to beat policing combined with the introduction of sophisticated new crime fighting technology are responsible for slashing DC crime rates.

We are using our pooled expertise to gain a better understanding of crime and to more precisely target the perpetrators of violent crime
Cecil Thomas
Policing expert

Inside Mr Buentello's patrol car, a small computer, or Mobile Data Terminal, receives minute-by-minute updates of all emergency calls coming into the department along with any new information on cases under investigation or crimes taking place in the area.

Commanders also receive regular updates on their mobile phones.

On the roof of his vehicle, Mr Buentello points out a "Tag Meter" which automatically scans licence plates and identifies vehicles which are stolen or are suspected of being used in a crime.

The DC police force also uses Shot Detectors to monitor activity in parts of the city associated with gun crime.

This information is then sent electronically to officers patrolling the area.

"All of these things add up to a powerful crime fighting weapon," said Officer Buentello. "They help us solve cases and act as a powerful deterrent."

In New York, police send a mobile data unit to murder scenes, allowing police there to listen to emergency calls and search databases listing everyone in a certain building who is on parole.

Cincinnati police have in-car computers which allow them to use surveillance cameras to zoom in on everything happening within a known trouble area.

In New York, murder has dropped 8.8% over the last two years, and 77.2% since 1993.

It is a similar story in Los Angeles, where murder is down 20.8% in the last two years.

PhD policing

Some experts warn that police departments may be celebrating prematurely, however.

"I'm sceptical about the claim that violent crime is down because policing has got better," says Andrew Karmen, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and author of New York Murder Mystery.

"The truth is that not all violent crimes are down in all cities."

Baltimore, Denver and Dallas are among cities experiencing a higher number of homicides compared with last year.

According to experts factors contributing to a rise in crime include poverty, unemployment, the size of the police force, the efficiency of the local criminal justice system in identifying and locking up repeat offenders and whether there is an entrenched gang, drug and gun culture.

Despite some regional discrepancies, most observers agree, however, that the drop in violent crime in many cities is significant.

The trend also cast doubt on the widely-held view that crime increases during times of economic hardship.

Criminologists point out that crime rates were relatively low during the Great Depression compared with the Roaring Twenties, when there was more violence across America.

Policing expert and Cincinnati councilman Cecil Thomas worked for the Cincinnati police force for 27 years.

He said that a greater willingness to pool resources with criminologists, the FBI, other police departments and crime fighting bodies has led to more effective policing.

"We all used to be very territorial but what you are seeing now is 'PhD policing' - we are using our pooled expertise to gain a better understanding of crime and to more precisely target the perpetrators of violent crime," said Mr Thomas.

Chief Lanier stresses that new technology alone cannot fight crime.

She has introduced a number of initiatives aimed at building relationships with the community, including All Hands On Deck, whereby every police officer in DC goes out simultaneously on foot patrol.

The introduction of these measures has led to a greater volume of tip-offs from the public.

"We'll never kick back and relax and think we've done our work," said Chief Lanier. "We can always do better."

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