IF YOU LIVE at the crossroads of the drug trade in this city, or own a liquor store in an area where there are a lot of robberies, you're probably more than concerned about crime: you're frightened by it. Sometimes though, fear of crime is far out of proportion to the real threat. Some citizens -- and this is particularly true of older people -- have an exaggerated view of the dangers in their own community. This fear is sometimes so pervasive that people are reluctant to venture outside their homes, neighbors become isolated from each other, and commercial activity in a community dries up. Ironically, these reactions often result in the abandonment of the streets to those very people whose disorderly or criminal behavior gives rise to the fear in the first place.

What can be done to combat unreasonble fear and to give law-abiding citizens both confidence and reassurance? A pilot project run by the Police Foundation and funded by the National Institute of Justice provides some answers that involve increased personal contact between citizens and the police. Two cities, Houston and Newark, were chosen for the study, and while federal money was used for some of it, local money was also used and, happily, no increases in police budgets were necessary.

Researchers found that some ideas that were promising on paper didn't work at all. Newsletters, for example, even when they provided crime-fighting tips and data on the real extent of the problem, went unread. Clean-up projects designed to reduce signs of deterioration and social disorder were ineffective. And one approach -- having the police get back in touch with crime victims to offer further assistance -- sometimes increased fears.

The most successful steps were those that increased personal contact between citizens and the police: establishing small, storefront police stations in neighborhoods; sending officers to make door-to- door contact with residents to identify crime problems and develop programs to respond to them; and encouraging officers to establish community organizations -- liaison groups, safe houses for children, Neighborhood Watch, for example -- that foster contact and cooperation with citizens.

Police chiefs in both cities caution that officers initially resist change and new approaches. But both testify that early reluctance turned to enthusiasm when officers realized how receptive and appreciative the citizens were. The study provides useful, well-documented information on how crime fears can be reduced by a few simple, inexpensive programs. It should be useful to police and community groups in many cities.