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Conventional wisdom suggests that a bad economy would lead to a rising crime rate. But in many big cities around the country the murder rate is way down. Take Los Angeles, where the number of homicides last year was the lowest it's been in more than four decades. NPR's Mandalit del Barco looks at some of the reasons.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Christmas morning was bloody in L.A.'s Echo Park neighborhood, when one man was shot dead and three pedestrians were wounded by a group of men riding in a car.�It used to be this way often when Echo Park was a violent gangland, but not so much anymore, say Jose Larumbe and his 12-year-old son Jesus.

Mr. JOSE LARUMBE: Years ago, yeah, it used to be wild, you know. People was getting crazy. But now...

Mr. JESUS LARUMBE: Relaxed.

Mr. LARUMBE: Police doing something.

DEL BARCO: Larumbe's 15-year-old daughter Griselda and her friend Michelle Figueroa say they don't hear as much gunfire or see as much gang graffiti as they used to.

Ms. GRISELDA LARUMBE: Before, there used to be like lots more gangsters. Like they're not doing so much damage anymore.

Mr. JESUS LARUMBE: You don't see those people with their pants like - just skinny jeans for everybody.

Ms. GRISELDA LARUMBE: That's the style.

DEL BARCO: It's not just the new fashion trend. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced there were 297 homicides in Los Angeles last year, the lowest number since 1967.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Democrat, Los Angeles): This achievement is particularly noteworthy given the state of the economy. You walk downtown, you go to Hollywood - this isn't hyperbole, everybody. We all know, it's a changed place.

DEL BARCO: Villaraigosa notes it's a huge drop from the more than 1,000 murders that happened in 1992, the height of a massive drug epidemic. Today, more than half of the city's homicides are still gang-related. But the mayor says things have improved because of former gang members turned interventionists.

Mayor VILLARAIGOSA: Who immediately after a shooting make sure that they're calming the waters in communities where otherwise there might have been a retaliation.

DEL BARCO: Police Chief Charlie Beck told reporters another reason was he was finally was able to hire enough officers to patrol the city and work with the community to prevent crime.

Police Chief CHARLIE BECK (Los Angeles Police Department): For the past nine years - nine years, and no other city's done this - crime has dropped every year in Los Angeles, every year.

DEL BARCO: Last year, New York, San Francisco and Milwaukee, to name a few, saw a slight uptick in killings. But even there,�and across much of the country,�homicides have been on a decade-long decline.

Professor MARK KLEIMAN (UCLA): Crime generally has been going down since 1994. It is now about half its 1994 level. I mean, it's a spectacularly dramatic social change.

DEL BARCO: UCLA public policy Professor Mark Kleiman says police departments have new crime-predicting tools and sometimes better community relations. Sentences are stricter and there are more prisons.

Kleiman says there's another big difference between now and the early 1990s, when the crack epidemic was at its peak.

Prof. KLEIMAN: Partly the crack dealers have learned how to do business without killing�each other. In the early days, there was a gold rush and people were literally shooting each other on the street corners.

But also they were heavily armed and shooting each other over petty interpersonal disputes. And that's calmed down a little bit, partly for the simple reason that a lot of the people who would now be committing murder in L.A. are dead, and a lot of the rest are doing life in prison.

DEL BARCO: Criminologists have various theories on the decrease of homicides, from changes in demographics to economic factors. But experts can only speculate, and they can't predict if the downward trend will continue.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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