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I timed the local news on a District of Columbia television station a few nights ago and was appalled to find that the first 13 minutes were devoted to crime stories. And I mean crimes that make strong men shiver.

Police were trying to identify the woman whose headless, limbless torso was found in a garbage bag in a residential area.

Relatives were burying a young woman who was shot dead by a bicyclist as she tried to apologize after her car accidentally touched his bicycle.

A missing young woman was found in a hospital in critical condition by her worried relatives after people had watched her being beaten and raped while policemen took 35 minutes to respond to 911 calls.

As I watched the gruesome parade of stories, many about violent people with illicit guns, I had in front of me an FBI report saying crime rates in the United States have declined for the fifth straight year. I wondered about the seeming discrepancy between what I was seeing on television and what the FBI was reporting.

Could it be that TV news directors are hopelessly morbid souls? Or is it that the law enforcement people who report to the FBI can't count?

I'm somewhat cynical about this celebrated downturn in homicides, burglaries and even small crimes because I know that both law enforcement honchos and the politicians who choose them have a vested interest in reporting that we all can enjoy greater personal safety.

I thought that perhaps the TV news here is distorted by a rate of lawlessness that exceeds the crime rates in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago or Atlanta. I checked with colleagues and friends in those cities and was told that crime dominated the news there, too -- with even the suburbs and rural areas seriously afflicted.

But OK! Suppose I accept the FBI report. Then I must ask why crime is down.

The tough law-and-order people say it's because the jails and prisons are now clogged with would-be criminals, thus making everyone safer. They are, of course, trying to justify a huge increase in arrests of "little people" -- the poorly educated and the jobless. And, of course, they seek to justify colossal expenditures for more jails and prisons.

Others say that the FBI figures reflect the fact that the nation's highest crime group, males ages 17 to 24, now represents a smaller percentage of the population. If this is so, the future looks rough because the percentage of that group is about to rise sharply.

Some say that the drop in crime reflects the hiring of more policemen and forcing all cops to get off the sofas and out onto the streets to police aggressively. But this hasn't happened yet in most communities, so "better policing" clearly is not the overall panacea.

Then there is drug abuse. Despite cries that our war on drugs has been a dud, some would have us believe that dope trafficking has "stabilized" to the point where we no longer have teen-agers and drug lords engaging in murderous "turf wars."

There may be some of all of these things at play in producing a decline in major crimes, if indeed there has been a significant reduction. But I'll bide my time until I see this decline reflected in my newspapers and on my TV screen, and then let someone offer proof as to what forces deserve the credit.

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