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Crime's retreat isn't confined to Buffalo.

In 1997, it also declined in all the city's major suburban towns -- from Amherst and Tonawanda, to Cheektowaga and Lancaster, Hamburg and Orchard Park.

Generally, non-violent crimes plague suburban residents. While shopping at a mall, their car is stolen. While on vacation, their house is burglarized. While watching a soccer game, someone steals a cellular phone from their car.

Violent crime, meanwhile, generally remains the domain of Buffalo, although it has dropped significantly there over the past five years. The violent-crime rate in Buffalo is now 12.82 crimes for every 1,000 residents.

The violent-crime rate was less than 1 per 1,000 residents last year in Orchard Park, Amherst, Tonawanda and Lancaster.

The biggest drop occurred in the Town of Lancaster, where crime plummeted 30 percent.

Perhaps it was the greater emphasis on community policing, said Lancaster Police Chief Thomas E. Fowler, admittedly searching for a reason.

"I frankly don't have an explanation for it," Fowler added. "But it looks like '98 is going to be as good as '97."

The Town of Hamburg also saw a double-digit drop from 1996 to 1997, with crime falling 13 percent, while crime in Kenmore fell 11 percent, and the Village of Lancaster, 18 percent.

Not that every community in Erie County became a safer place in which to live last year.

Several small communities -- particularly some villages and small cities -- saw crime increase.

And while crime went down in
Amherst -- labeled the safest "city" in the country for the past two years by Money magazine -- burglaries in that community climbed in 1997 for the second year in a row.

"There's a proliferation of house alarms," said Capt. John Moslow. "Even the average person can afford an alarm now."

Now that more homes have alarms, police said, burglars target businesses.

Bill Caputi, an Amherst business owner, wishes he had a better burglary alarm.

Someone broke into his liquor store in the Northtowns Plaza on Sheridan Drive on July 1 and stole $2,600 in liquor and cash. The culprits even had the nerve to try a second time the next day, but couldn't get in.

"We've been here 32 years and we've never been broken into," Caputi said. "Now the problems in the city are problems in the suburbs."

He recently spent $3,000 installing security and a video-surveillance system to prevent future break-ins.

"If they come in now, they'd get photographed doing it," he said.

Not that crime is a big problem in Amherst. Overall, it dropped 5 percent in the town last year -- the third year in a row that a decline was posted. And even taking this year's increase into account, burglaries have fallen about 30 percent since 1991, thanks to all those alarms, police said.

The 1997 crime figures compiled by the Erie County Central Police Services include data in the eight major categories of crime identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

They are violent crimes -- murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- and non-violent, or property crimes -- burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft.

Generally, crime in these eight categories has been dropping nationally during the past six years, as municipalities have embraced community policing, and drug users have become less enamored of crack cocaine.

Of the 21 municipal police jurisdictions in Erie County, crime dropped from 1996 to 1997 in 11 of them, including Buffalo and the seven largest towns -- Cheektowaga, Hamburg, West Seneca, Orchard Park, Amherst, Tonawanda and Lancaster.

Crimes increased, meanwhile, in four of seven villages -- Angola, Hamburg, Gowanda and Akron, as well as in the towns of Aurora, Eden and Evans. These are places where there are relatively few crimes, so another 10 or 20 incidents can represent a significant increase in the crime rate.

And while crime in the City of Buffalo dropped by 5 percent last year, it went up in the county's two small cities, minimally in the City of Tonawanda and by 9 percent in Lackawanna.

Still, just as police don't have clear-cut answers on why crime is dropping in some towns, they are just as uncertain why it is rising in others.

Perhaps more people are reporting crimes, Lackawanna Police Chief Dennis O'Hara suggested.

"We developed a community policing unit and by deploying these officers into the community, there are more reports being filed," O'Hara said.

But other factors are clearly at work in Lackawanna. Assaults rose 17 percent and robbery jumped 56 percent. Car thefts increased 27 percent in 1997, mainly because thieves target people parking at bars and other business on Abbott Road, police said.

Motor vehicle theft, meanwhile, declined in most other communities.

Police attributed beefed up security at Walden Galleria for the decline in Cheektowaga.

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