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Property crimes are nosediving across the U.S.

Property crime in the United States has fallen sharply since 1980, data from the FBI show, with burglary rates down by almost half. That gives New York a lower burglary rate than London and Los Angeles fewer burglaries than Sydney, Australia.

The drop in property crime - burglary, larceny and auto thefts - has been obscured by the high level of violent crimes such as murder and robbery, which spurred demands for tougher sentencing laws.The drop in property crime - which outnumbers violent crime by 7 to 1 - has been so large that the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and Canada now have overall crime rates as high as the United States and just as many criminals per capita, said Professor Franklin Zimring, the director of the Earl Warren Legal Institute at the University of California at Berkeley.

Some explanations for the fall in property crime are similar to those given by law-enforcement officials and criminologists for the drop in violent crime in the past several years - improved police tactics, a decline in the teenage population, greater community involvement and longer prison sentences.

A number of experts also cite the greater use of alarm systems and what many see as a crucial element, the switch from heroin to crack cocaine among street criminals. Crack, unlike heroin, produces a brief, intense high, creating an incessant need for cash, while burglary is time-consuming and generates stolen goods that must still be sold to get money.

"One of the most remarkable things about the decline in burglary is that it is so substantial that it is unprecedented in magnitude compared to any other fluctuation in crime rates over the last century," said Scott Decker, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and co-author of "Armed Robbers in Action: Stickups and Street Culture," to be published later this month by Northeastern University Press.

Though the decline in property crime has occurred throughout the United States, nowhere has it been greater than in San Diego. From 1980 to the end of 1996, the burglary rate in San Diego plunged 68 percent and the larceny rate fell 37 percent, according to police department figures. Larceny includes petty thefts like shoplifting, pickpocketing and automobile break-ins.

Motor-vehicle thefts, the third major type of property crime counted by the FBI in its annual crime reports, have declined 61 percent in San Diego since reaching a record high in 1989.

Jerry Sanders, San Diego's police chief, unlike Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former Police Commissioner William Bratton in New York, is careful not to claim credit for his city's huge drop in crime.

"It's happening in so many different cities that are doing so many different things," Sanders said. "I think it is hard to put your finger on what's causing the decline."

Besides, the chief said, "The problem with claiming better policing is responsible is that someday crime is going to go up again, and I wouldn't want to be on the other side of that question."

But in addition to the often cited causes for the drop, Sanders has his favorite theory: "As the crime rate comes down, it is starting to bring people with it," he said. "They are starting to realize they themselves can do something about it, so we have lots of citizens out solving problems on their own."

Take Agnes Brookes, a 69-year-old retired church secretary in San Diego. In 1993, with time on her hands and wanting to give something back to her community, Brookes joined the Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol, a group of 400 older residents, including former doctors, firefighters, corporate executives and Navy officers who undergo three weeks of training at the police academy and wear a shield and uniform that look like regular police dress.

As part of her training, Brookes took a course in what is known as "problem-solving policing," innovative police tactics that focus on issues like why many crimes repeatedly occur at the same place or how to design environmental safeguards against criminals.

Her instructor assigned her to see what could be done about a self-storage warehouse that had experienced 150 burglaries in the previous six months, many of them thefts from sailors who had left their belongings there while aboard Navy ships.

The police were having no luck solving the break-ins and regarded the hours consumed in writing reports on the burglaries as a waste of time they might have used to chase robbers or other violent criminals.

Brookes surveyed the warehouse and after checking with all the other self-storage businesses in the city, decided the problem was sloppy management: people who had no business at the warehouse were allowed to drive through the locked front gate behind legitimate customers.

So Brookes, in her powder-blue uniform shirt, pressured the owner into changing the manager, got new lighting and locks installed and added a device that required customers to know an exit code.

In the three months after her work, there was only one burglary, and the culprit was caught. There have been no incidents since.

For Sanders, people like Brookes are essential to his new style of community-oriented policing, especially because San Diego, with only 1.7 police officers per thousand residents, has the lowest ratio of officers per capita in the nation. New York, by comparison, has 5.2 officers per thousand and Washington has 6.84.

In what law-enforcement experts say is a major national trend, San Diego has a total of 8,000 volunteers who assist its 2,036-member police force, including 4,000 block-watch captains, 3,000 people who patrol their neighborhoods in their cars on weekend nights and 600 retired citizens who work in police stations helping with word processing or filling out paperwork.