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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. law enforcement agencies are reporting a surprising drop in crime last year, with homicide rates in some major cities plunging to levels not seen in four decades, despite a deep and prolonged recession.
The FBI's latest nationwide figures show that violent crime for the United States as a whole declined by 4.4 percent in the first half of 2009, compared with the first half of 2008, led by a 10 percent drop in murders.
Falling crime in urban centers such as New York, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, coinciding with the worst economic slump since the 1930s, is challenging long-held social theories linking lawlessness to joblessness.
Experts say much of the credit for lower crime likely goes to proactive law enforcement strategies in which police quickly boost their presence in selected urban areas to deter would-be bad guys, using real-time analysis of street intelligence.
Scholars also suggest that the recession itself, contrary to conventional wisdom, could mute crime as rising unemployment keeps more people at home, where they are more apt to avoid trouble and look out for others as community guardians.
"If they are at home, that means more eyes on the street, and more eyes on neighbors' property," said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and president of the American Society of Criminology.
With less income at their disposal, people also venture out less frequently to nightspots during times of economic distress, leaving them less likely to engage in criminal behavior or to become victims of crime, he added.
"What we're seeing now represents something of a break in pattern from the historical connection between crime increases and economic downturns," Rosenfeld said.
Year-end statistics from the largest U.S. cities defy the predictions of many police commanders who braced for a crime wave they expected to be unleashed by the recession, rising home foreclosures and social despair.
Last year turned out to be the safest on record in New York City, with the murder rate in the nation's biggest metropolis plunging to its lowest level since the city began gathering comparable data in the early 1960s.
Crime overall was down about 11 percent in New York and off 12 percent Chicago. The number of murders in Dallas fell for a second straight year in 2009 to its lowest mark since 1967.
Los Angeles, the second-most populous U.S. city, posted its lowest crime rate in about 50 years, with violent crimes including homicide dropping nearly 11 percent from 2008 levels and property crimes down 8 percent for the same period. Homicides alone in Los Angeles dropped by 18 percent.
"It's inexplicable why these crime numbers are so good, except for one thing -- cops count. Effective policing matters," the new Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck told a news conference on Wednesday.
In particular he pointed to gains made in curbing violent crimes among the city's notorious street gangs.
Some experts argue that while some past economic downturns may have coincided with higher crime rates, there was little or no causal relationship between the two, and that the latest statistics help prove their point.
"Big national trends in crime are much more powerfully influenced by things like drug epidemics and huge demographic shifts ... than they are by the economy," said David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
He cited the era of U.S. alcohol Prohibition during the so-called Roaring '20s, when organized crime controlled bootlegging, followed by the Great Depression of the 1930s.
"The era of Prohibition was one of tremendous economic prosperity, accompanied by unprecedented levels of violent crime because of the issues associated with the illicit market for alcohol," Kennedy said. "The country got rid of Prohibition, which got rid of those illicit market issues, entered into the Great Depression, and crime plummeted."
Conversely, crime waves that coincided with tough times had more to do with spikes in the illegal drug trade that accompanied them, such as the "crack" cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kennedy said.
But Rosenfeld insisted that the influence of economic factors cannot be entirely discounted.
He said closer examination of the 1930s reveals that many of the New Deal policies instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt helped blunt some of the deprivations that might otherwise have produced rising crime during the Depression.
In a similar vein, Rosenfeld said the extension of U.S. unemployment benefits under President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package may have helped keep crime in check.
However, he warned that gains made by police could be lost if the recession persists for too long, leading to cutbacks in public safety at the local government level.
Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman