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Gary Younge
Murders in New York drop to levels not seen since 1960s

The city, once synonymous with insecurity, civic disintegration and violence, defied the national trend of a slight increase in serious crime by recording a fall of 5%.

New York's overall rate of 3,100 crimes for every 100,000 people is 25% below the national rate of 4,119. Of the 230 cities included in the analysis, it came 208th on the "most dangerous" list.

Most striking was the drop in murders, down by 9.6% to 580 - with fewer people dying violently than in 1963.

Mr Bloomberg praised his police force for reducing serious crime in difficult circumstances. "The safest big city in America keeps getting safer," he said.

"While the conventional wisdom said New York's crime rate would increase in recession and fiscal crisis, the police department proved it wrong and showed, once again, why they are the finest in the world."

The FBI annual statistics revealed that the national crime rate had risen slightly in 2002 after a steady drop during the 90s which left the overall level 16% down on a decade ago.

But experiences varied from city to city. In St Louis, Missouri, for example, a drop of 25% was recorded, while Oakland, California, had a rise of 29%. Los Angeles and Chicago, the second and third largest cities respectively, recorded the most murders.

Experts had predicted that crime would increase because of a poor job market, budget deficits that have caused a reduction in police numbers, and the diversion of resources towards fighting terrorism.

James Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, said the figures were to be welcomed. "These factors make it a significant achievement to hold the line on crime rates," he told the New York Times, referring to the whole nation.

Kevin Watson, spokesman for the Law Enforcement Alliance of America, said: "When states are looking at sweeping budget cuts, some of them have been looking at public safety, like cutting time off prison sentences and reducing the terms of probationers.

"But short-term savings don't always match up to long-term security. Local governments are going to have to weigh those trade-offs very carefully."

This trade-off was particularly stark in New York, which has been hit hard by the recession. It is in the grip of a fiscal crisis and is regarded as a prime target for terrorists.

The FBI report was not all positive, however. It also revealed a sharp increase in the number of sexual assaults, with rape figures up by 4.7%.

There was also an increase in the number of women arrested. Men still accounted for the vast majority of adult arrests (77%), but womenwere catching up, with 1.9 million held last year. This was a 14% increase from 1993. In the same period, the number of men arrested fell by 6%.

Most of the increases in arrests for women were for crimes such as embezzlement (80% higher), drug abuse (50%), vagrancy (42%), alcohol violations (49%) and forgery and counterfeiting (19%).

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