Joe Johnson doesn't have to pack a pistol to feel safe in his crime-ridden neighborhood north of Miami. He has something more powerful: a cellular phone.

Johnson, a 38-year-old security guard, participates in a program that arms citizens with cellular telephones to combat crime. Cellular Citizens' Crime Watch operates through community watch groups in 11 neighborhoods.Johnson has a permit to carry a concealed weapon, but he said he feels safer packing a cell phone instead.

"Having this phone means I don't even think about carrying a gun," Johnson said. "That cellular phone I have is more of a weapon for getting positive assistance for my community than myself carrying a weapon."

Arming residents with portable phones appears to be helping cut crime rates, according to an eight-month study released Thursday by Florida International University.

The study compiled crime figures in the 11 neighborhoods from October 1994 to June 1995 and compared them with figures for the same period a year earlier.

Among the findings:

-Burglaries declined by 33 percent, to 229 from October 1994 to June 1995, compared with 341 for the earlier period;

-Robberies decreased by 24 percent, to 31, down from 41 a year earlier;

-Thefts dropped 9 percent, with 70 reported, down from 77 a year earlier.

"The numbers just blew me away," said Metro-Dade Police Lt. Gerald A. Rudoff, project co-or-di-na-tor.

Cellular One of Florida donated 50 phones and 200 minutes of monthly air time. Participants got instruction on what type of situation warranted a call to 911, and when to call the police nonemergency number.

In one case, Johnson got a call from a neighbor who had been robbed at gunpoint. The next day, working from the description given to him the night before, he saw the suspect.

His call to police netted not only the alleged armed robber but an accomplice riding a stolen bicycle.