The Big Apple's plummeting crime rate is the talk of the town. The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times have run front page stories about it. Major newsmagazines, academic and public institutions have also taken notice, written about the phenomenon and even handed out awards for what has occurred there.

Since 1993, serious crime in New York City has dropped nearly 40 percent while the rest of the nation's crime rate declined only 2 percent. For the first time since 1968, the number of murders in the city has dropped below 1,000. Auto theft has fallen 51 percent since 1990, and crime for 1996 has declined 16 percent below last year's figures.

"New York has been seeing historically unprecedented declines in serious crime," said David Kennedy, a senior researcher with the Program in Criminal Justice for the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Traditionally, crime experts say it's difficult to point a finger at one particular reason crime goes up or comes down, given such factors as changing incarceration policies, economics and demographics. "But after three years of this substantial decline," explained Kennedy, "it's almost certainly a case that these reductions are due to what the New York Police Department (NYPD) has been doing."

WHAT CHANGED?

What NYPD has done is get tough on crime. That wasn't always the case. Plagued by a series of corruption scandals during the 1970s and '80s, NYPD had a reputation for trying to avoid trouble rather than accomplish its job. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani changed all that when he hired William J. Bratton as police commissioner in 1994. Bratton combined aggressive policing tactics with a tough new managerial attitude that emphasized the twin forces of empowerment and accountability among precinct commanders. Bratton was replaced by Howard Safir in April 1996.

A major component in NYPD's crime fighting strategy is the relentless gathering and analysis of crime statistics. A combination of new and not-so-new computer technology has allowed NYPD to stay on top of numerous crime patterns and trends in a way that wasn't possible before. "For the first time, we are using crime statistics to give us a sense of what is going on immediately," said Lenny Alcivar, a spokesman for NYPD.

By computerizing these statistics as quickly as they become available and converting the data into charts and maps, commanders can quickly see how certain crimes are affecting their precincts. "With that information, we can give precinct commanders increased autonomy over their jurisdictions, because policing in Harlem is different from policing in Brooklyn," said Alcivar.

While computers are just another tool in the city's fight to reduce crime, they are proving to be a significant factor. "One can imagine something like Compstat -- NYPD's name for its computer-based management strategy -- happening without modern information support," remarked Kennedy, "but one can't imagine Compstat working with the kind of clarity, speed and immediacy that it does without the use of computers."

NO MINOR CRIMES

A major factor in NYPD's new war on crime has been its aggressive pursuit of so-called quality-of-life offenses. The police have gone after drug dealers, street prostitutes, cars with loud stereos, pushy panhandlers and even spitters. Former Deputy Police Commissioner Jack Maple -- considered by many to be the brains behind Compstat -- has said that to fight crime every case should be treated as if your mother was the victim. In other words, there's no such thing as a minor crime.

After arresting the petty criminals, the police check for weapons -- using civil confiscation laws -- and then grill the suspects for information about other crimes happening in the neighborhood. Quickly, word gets out on the street about the confiscations or the arrests for nuisance crimes and soon dealers and thieves begin leaving their weapons at home. With fewer weapons out on the street, arguments and brawls