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Drop in Violent Crime in D.C. Area and Some Other Major Cities Puzzles Experts

Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton said that since he took over the department in September, there has been a more defined mission about how to attack crime.

He identified car thefts as one of the county's major problems and a "gateway" crime, meaning if criminals get away with stealing a car, they sometimes become emboldened and begin committing more daring acts. In 2004, about 18,500 cars were stolen in the county, more than in all of Virginia.

Since then, the department has focused on arresting car thieves and educating the public about protecting their cars, and the number of car thefts has shrunk by half.

"We have a very detailed and comprehensive strategy. We are triaging our community," Hylton said.

He said the homicide closure rate is about 70 percent, which has helped get many criminals off the streets.

"If you come into Prince George's County and you commit a murder, we're going to track you down and arrest you and lock you up," Hylton said.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, said the drop in homicides this year is notable, especially considering the weather.

"This does come at an important time," he said. "We're midway through summer, and summer is when you see the most significant increase in street violence. Departments have had to be more strategic in terms of gangs and hot spots."

Wexler said that crime isn't down everywhere. Baltimore and Dallas are among some cities experiencing a higher number of killings compared with last year.

Gary LaFree, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland, said it has taken police decades to figure out how to effectively target crime.

"In the '60s, crime was like an act of God, like a tornado or earthquake," LaFree said. "Where policing has changed is that we've gotten the idea this is a problem we created and there are human solutions to it. Obviously, crime is not randomly distributed. It is connected to hot spots in cities and other areas."

LaFree and others agree that crime doesn't automatically go up when the economy is poor. Property crime is also trending down in many jurisdictions, including the District, Prince George's and Montgomery. The FBI reported last week that bank robberies across the country fell in the first quarter of the year, with 1,498 reported, compared with 1,604 in the first quarter of 2008.

Criminologists point to the Great Depression in the 1930s as a time of relatively low crime compared with the Roaring Twenties, when the country experienced more violence.

Lanier said that despite the good news, there's not much celebrating going on among police chiefs across the country.

"We're afraid to relax in any way and say crime is down," she said. "We tend to not talk about it much because we know how quick things can turn. What's successful today, tomorrow can turn on a dime."

Staff writers Maria Glod, Tom Jackman, Dan Morse and Josh White contributed to this report.


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