Two years ago, the number of homicides hit a 10-year high in Seattle, a city that prides itself on its sense of civility and its belief that it can direct its destiny.
The city responded in several ways. It sent a team of police officers, prosecutors, and physicians to schools to warn young people about the dangers of guns; it ratcheted up a program to deal with domestic violence; and it intensified efforts to recreate a sense of community in city neighborhoods.
The result: Seattle's violent crime rate today is among the lowest in the country.
Seattle isn't alone, of course. Violent crime in the United States has been declining since the early 1990s. Last year, the murder rate dropped 8 percent nationally, driven in part by the downturn in juvenile crime for the first time in nearly a decade. The trend has continued this year, with the number of homicides falling in two-thirds of the nation's largest cities, according to a Monitor survey.
Yet Seattle is a standout. Last year the number of homicides here dropped by 40 percent. This year, they have plunged even lower. Through June, police recorded just 12 homicides compared with 27 during the same period in 1995.
As much as they'd like to, police here don't take full credit for the news that has made life in the largest city in the Pacific Northwest a little safer. They cite demographics (fewer people in their mid-teens and early 20s, who tend to be more crime-prone) and more people in prison than before. There are nearly three times as many people in prison today as in 1980, according to the US Justice Department.
But law enforcement here has a new attitude: that crime prevention can curb violence. "I think you can prevent murder," says Lt. Emett Kelsie, the gang-squad commander of the Seattle Police Department. "You can't prevent every murder, but you can address that frame of mind, that propensity."
Relatively young and prosperous, Seattle differs in many ways from its older peers to the east. It is a mostly white, middle-class city with no discernible ghetto.
Its city leaders fret about managing growth rather than decline. Its inhabitants are deeply concerned about the quality of their lives. Crime has grown here, but it has never been the major problem it is in old industrial cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland.
"We were able to start a lot further ahead with our community policing than a lot of the more established cities," Lt. Kelsie says.
At the core of the anticrime efforts is a series of policies and programs to make fast-growing Seattle, now up to 520,000 residents, remain true to its small-town atmosphere. "We're more polite than most. We return wallets when they're dropped. We're polite drivers," says anticrime activist Kay Godefroy. "We're a small town. I hope we stay that way."
As executive director of the nonprofit Seattle Neighborhood Group, Ms. Godefroy has been working with police and communities since 1988 to help reduce crime. …