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For the first time in decades, there has not been a single homicide in Niagara County during an entire calendar year, police officials say.

"I've been in the business 31 years, and this is the first time I can ever remember" going through a year without a single murder, Sheriff Thomas Beilein said.

The City of Niagara Falls has averaged between four and eight homicides a year for the past 20 years, according to Records Officer Rich Shaw. Police records show that there were seven homicides at this time last year.

Though there were no murders, two Niagara County residents were charged with criminally negligent homicide this year: A 15-year-old North Tonawanda boy was charged in the death of his 14-year-old friend while on a joyride on a boat on the Niagara River, and a Town of Lockport woman is serving a prison term after her 9-month-old baby drowned in a bathtub while she was engrossed in a crossword puzzle.

While crime in general -- and violent crime in particular -- is down statewide, the declines have been remarkable locally, Niagara Falls Police Chief Ernest Palmer said.

The overall crime rate is down by 38 percent, records show, with robberies down by 47 percent, and a 27 percent decrease in felony assaults. Police also said that arrests are up in 1999 by about 12 percent and that drug arrests are up by 72 percent.

Officials attribute the drop in crime to a variety of factors, including aggressive pro-arrest policies in domestic-violence cases, better intervention programs for dealing with violent offenders, and a get-tough stance by local justices dealing with those who physically abuse others.

Beilein estimates that most of the county's homicides in recent years have been of a domestic nature, where the victim and the killer knew each other. He said police have been more aggressive in dealing with domestic incidents by mandating arrests when physical abuse is evident, whether or not the victim wants to press charges.

"The theory is: You take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves," said Niagara County District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III. "Our domestic-violence program is aimed at taking care of the minor assaults and harassments (before they escalate into more serious crimes)."

Ken Sass, president of Family and Children's Service of Niagara Inc., agreed that the arrest policies have proved to be a deterrent, along with a much improved and more widely accepted system of safe houses and support programs for targets of domestic violence.

"The courts have been working closely with service providers to channel (abusive) men into meaningful treatment," Sass said. "Judges in all three (Niagara County) cities have been very vigilant about that -- the alternative often being jail.

Palmer thinks that a couple of other factors have been equally critical in the shrinking rate of violent crime in his city: the drop in popularity of crack cocaine, and a rise in the number and active involvement of neighborhood watch groups.

"Community groups should get a lot of the credit," he said. "They have banded together and made the streets safer, in concert with the Police Department."

With population levels approaching capacity in Niagara County Jail, Beilein said, many of those who might otherwise become involved in violent crime are already doing time.

"Judges are putting the career criminals away," he said. "I don't know if that's a factor or not. Plus, there's also the New York State death penalty, which might be a deterrent."

Whatever the reason, Murphy said, he is elated.

"Every homicide involves hundreds of hours of work on the part of the police and the prosecutor's office," he said. "I am happy and delighted."

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