It's tempting to compare District Heights, which sits just northwest of Andrews Air Force Base, to fictional Mayberry, U.S.A.

With its rows of manicured lawns and ranch-style split-level houses, this inner-Beltway community has a quiet, small-town feel to it. Neighbors know one another by name. And to top it all off, the police chief has a framed picture of Mayberry Sheriff's Deputy Barney Fife on his office wall.

But don't do it, District Heights Mayor Jack C. Sims and Police Chief Fred Keeney said. Although Mayberry was quaint, it was also stagnant, unchanging through the years. And the comparison could imply that District Heights is that way, too.

In fact, the 13-person District Heights Police Department and a municipal center full of city officials have been celebrating quite a great change lately: Crime is down by huge percentages in a number of categories, and as a result, District Heights--all 1.1 square miles--is a safer, better place to live, they say.

There are a number of factors explaining why so far this year there's been a decrease in many reported crimes. Some reasons are simple, such as making police officers more visible, and others are "all new and really innovative for a city like District Heights," Sims said.

Sure, District Heights is a small town, and crime was never completely overwhelming: Most of the numbers were quite small, actually, even at the city's nadir about three years ago. But Keeney said he still believed the crime statistics were too high for a city with a population of about 7,000.

He and city leaders decided to change things. And the changes they made, they believe, had a direct effect on the crime rate.

Keeney can rattle off a laundry list of reasons, including: more vigorous patrolling and enforcement, community policing, complete computerization of department stats and records, a more active Neighborhood Watch, an influx of $240,000 worth of state and federal grant money, a focus on "quality of life" issues, a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and new bike patrols, among other things.

Accordingly, arrests have gone up 75 percent, and citations for such things as parking and moving violations, have increased 111 percent.

Robbery went from three to zero. Auto theft dropped from 65 in 1997 to 11 in 1998 and to eight so far this year. There were increases in some categories, such as assault, which went from six incidents to seven, and breaking and entering, which went from 18 incidents in 1998 to eight in the first quarter of 1999. Other categories remained constant, such as murder, which remained at zero. But overall, crime fell 33 percent.

Police still are targeting vandalism, which was one category that saw a spike, rising 85 percent from 14 incidents to 26 because of a crime spree in January when tires were slashed throughout town, Keeney said.

Overall, "the numbers are very encouraging," said Keeney, who has headed the department since October 1997. "I think there are some things we're doing right."

Sims remembers well the days when gang activity and the sound of gunfire in the night were not uncommon, especially in an area of deteriorating apartments.

These days, as Cpl. John Nesky drives around his beat, which includes the formerly troubled neighborhood on Atwood Street near the District Heights Parkway, he can't help but marvel at the changes.

"There used to be drugs, prostitution, serious foot chasing and everything else you can think of," Nesky said as he glanced out his patrol car window at a development of pleasant-looking housing. "But look at it now. It's because we devote constant attention. That works in our favor because of our size."

In other words, Nesky doesn't have a lot of ground to cover in a city that's so small, so he and other officers can concentrate their attention on one spot, if need be, until they see improvement.

"Troublemakers aren't going to keep coming back if they know we're going to be here," he said. "They're going to go to greener pastures where they won't be constantly stopped."

Along his beat, Nesky also stopped at two abandoned houses. He checked all the windows and doors to make sure no one had broken in and set up camp. He checked for vandalism. It's part of the HUD partnership, in which the agency alerts the police about houses it has taken over and asks police to check them daily.

"Crack houses aren't formed over night," Nesky said, explaining why the partnership is a good idea.

It's also a new idea that only a few cities have taken advantage of, Keeney said: Boston, Chicago . . . and District Heights.

Nesky walks some parts of District Heights, including the business district on Marlboro Pike, to reassure business owners and to keep an eye out for "quality of life" infringements, such as public drinking, loitering and jay walking.

And the residents are responsive: "They're always passing and they're always polite and they know me by name," said Barbara Tate, owner of Bab's Records on Marlboro Pike. I've lived in District Heights for 30 years, and this is the safest I've ever felt. I love it, and that's the honest-to-God truth."

A recent Friday night patrol also had officers responding to a false burglar alarm on Roslyn Avenue, searching for a missing child in the Woodland Springs apartment complex and stopping a speeding car on Kipling Parkway.

And some people were drawn to Nesky's cruiser just to ask questions, as if he were the rolling public information officer.

"What do I do about an overdue parking fine?" "How do I find out what the crime rate is in a particular area?" "Can I have a pen?"

Nesky obliged. "I enjoy knowing everybody and interacting with people," he said. "I treat people nicely, with respect until it's time not to."

And those times are rare, Nesky said, and there weren't any on this particular Friday night. It wasn't unusually busy or slow--just a typical night on patrol.

But Nesky is quick to remember that it probably wouldn't have been that way just a few years ago.