CONVENTIONAL WISDOM has it that when times are hard, people turn to crime. Conventional wisdom is often wrong. Right here in the District of Columbia, where the year 1982 was one of the worst in memory in terms of unemployment, reduced social programs and general all-around hardship, there was actually less crime than there had been the year before. Homicides were down 13 percent, robberies 12 percent and burglaries 12 percent. Some crimes were up--auto theft, aggravated assault and rape. But if one looks at the total picture of all violent crime, it too was down: 3.3 percent from 1981. This is the first reduction in the crime rate since 1976.

If unemployment didn't cause crime rates to go up, what then caused them to drop? Police Chief Maurice Turner credits hard work by his men, especially in putting into practice what he calls "proactive policing." This means going after the criminal in his own environment in order to prevent crime or make prompt arrests when prevention fails. The seeking out and arrest of 4,500 narcotics violators, for example, may very well have led to the prevention of thousands of burglaries and robberies, a traditional source of revenue for addicts.

Chief Turner also praises increased citizen concern and cooperation. The neighborhood watch program, effective in so many areas of the city, has undoubtedly cut down on daytime burglaries. And the crime solvers program, which provides a quick and confidential means of passing information on to the police, has produced results. Cooperation between the police and the U.S. attorney's office has been concentrated on chronic offenders who are identified at arrest and handled with speed and special attention in the courts. Many of the most dangerous offenders have been kept off the streets because of the new bail law that went into effect in July. Since that time, 372 serious offenders--most of them already on parole or probation--have been kept in custody instead of being released before trial.

Each of these law enforcement techniques may have contributed to the decline in the crime rate, or the decline may be due simply to demographics. Three-quarters of those arrested nationally for violent crimes are under 25 years old, and 16 percent are between 25 and 29. Because of declining birthrates in the last two decades, there are fewer young men in this age group, and their numbers are declining. Perhaps Chief Turner is not being overconfident when he sets a goal of a 12 percent reduction in crime for 1983. Good police work, increased citizen cooperation and demographics are all on our side.