Robberies have dropped by more than 25 percent in the Maryland suburbs over the last four years, while the number of cases statewide in 1998 reached the lowest point in a decade, according to crime statistics compiled by the Maryland State Police.

Although crime in general has been on the wane in the Free State since the mid-1990s, robberies declined more than any other reported crime category from 1995 to 1998, both statewide and in the Washington suburbs.

Although the raw numbers vary considerably from county to county, some of the largest decreases in robberies from 1995 to 1998 were 29 percent in Prince George's, 27 percent in Montgomery and 32 percent in Frederick, according to uniform crime reports submitted by all police departments to the Maryland State Police.

Charles, St. Mary's, Anne Arundel and Howard also reported fewer robberies, although the declines were less dramatic. Only Calvert County experienced an increase, but the numbers there were so small--eight robberies in 1995 versus 12 in 1998--as to make the comparison statistically insignificant.

Statewide, robberies dropped by 28 percent from 1995 to 1998, according to state police. Altogether, 15,297 robberies were reported in the state in 1998--the lowest since 1988, when there were 13,991.

Other crime indexes in Maryland also have gone down since 1995, although none have declined as much as robberies.

From 1995 to 1998, homicides decreased 11 percent; motor vehicle thefts, 23 percent; rapes, 20 percent; larceny theft, 11 percent; breaking and entering, 11 percent; and aggravated assault, 9 percent.

Police credited the results to a robust economy and low unemployment, as well as improved crime-fighting techniques and more officers on the street in many jurisdictions.

"The economy is pretty good, and property crimes are usually reflective of how the economy is," said Pete Piringer, a state police spokesman. "Most police forces are at full strength or have expanded. And there's increased public awareness, such as with neighborhood watch programs. All those things combined we'd like to think have made a difference."

The trend shows signs of continuing. In Montgomery and Prince George's--the two most populous counties in Washington's Maryland suburbs--authorities reported a decrease in robberies of 35 percent and 22 percent, respectively, during the first three months of 1999, compared with the same period in 1998, according to figures recently released by state police.

Some local police officials cited more cooperation from the public as another reason for the decline.

That's especially crucial in solving robberies, said Maj. Nick Valltos, commander of the criminal investigations division at the Prince George's police department. Unlike, say, burglaries or car thefts, by definition there are witnesses to robberies: the victims themselves and sometimes bystanders. And if the witnesses are willing to talk, investigators are much more likely to make arrests.

"If I had to pick up a core reason, it's citizens picking up the phone and calling us," Valltos said. "Our community-oriented policing strategy has really helped. We're only as good as the citizen who picks up the phone to give us information."

Valltos said improved communication among police departments has also made a dent in the number of robberies. He said Prince George's police, for instance, hold regular conferences to discuss armed robberies with police from Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's.

"It's a matter of networking," Valltos said. "We contact officers from all the other jurisdictions and say, 'We have this going on. Does that match anything you've seen?' "