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IT'S A CRIME: AMHERST SLIPS FROM RANKING AS SAFEST CITY

Amherst has lost its ranking as the nation's safest city.

The honor this year has been bestowed upon another upscale community, Newton, Mass., a Boston suburb, which last year was second behind Amherst.

This year, the two cities traded places, with Newton in the top spot Amherst had held for the previous three years.

Two murders reported in Amherst in 1998 -- the assassination of Dr. Bernard Slepian and a murder/suicide -- kept Amherst out of the No. 1 slot.

"Amherst still does an incredible job, but two murders is enough to knock it out of this kind of ranking," said Scott Morgan, a Kansas researcher who publishes the America's Safest Cities rankings every year.

Morgan reviews FBI crime data for communities of 75,000 or more, then plugs the figures into a formula measuring how a community's data compares with the national average.

He has been publishing his findings, initially in Money magazine, and now in books his company sells, as well as on the Internet, for six years.

There were 315 communities reviewed this year, including Cheektowaga, which ranked 20th. Buffalo was 257th. Syracuse ranked 169th; Rochester ranked 266th.

Detroit came in last, just behind Atlanta.

Having won the safest-city honor for the previous three years, Amherst officials take the ranking pretty seriously, viewing it as a selling point for their town, as well as a point of pride among police and elected officials.

So dropping from first place to second may mean little in terms of the quality of life in Amherst, but it is nonetheless a bit of a disappointment for some town officials.

"I'm surprised," said Supervisor Susan J. Grelick, "but it's still very good. It's not first, but second. We still should be proud."

In Newton, meanwhile, police officials seemed to be taking the honor bestowed upon them a bit less seriously. After all, the public announcement in Newton of the award had been delayed a few days because it was originally scheduled for the same day that the town held a press conference on a string of burglaries.

"It's a great honor," Lt. Paul Anastasia, Newton's public information officer, said of the "safest city" designation. "We don't have a lot of violent crime. We work in a community supportive of police.

"But," Anastasia added, "you need to look at where these statistics are coming from and how they are being manipulated."

What's more, even as Newton is basking in its current glory as the safest city in America, the town of 81,000 doesn't anticipate winning the honor again next year.

That's because Newton realizes one of the reasons it was named safest city this year is that the community didn't have any murders last year.

Newton wasn't so lucky in 1999. There was one murder in the town this year.

"When I inquired about our chances of winning next year, I was told if we have a murder, we are done. And we had one," he said.

Which means Amherst could still be in the running to regain the title next year.

Amherst -- population 110,000 -- has had no murders so far this year.

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