The Inquirer analysis represents a more complete and accurate version of data found in the Pennsylvania State Police's 1999 Uniform Crime Report.
After the state released its report in the fall, the newspaper corrected dozens of errors and omissions by collecting statistics directly from local police.
Among the findings for the four counties:
* Violent crime - murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault - fell by 7 percent last year. That rate already was low compared with that of Philadelphia, which released its crime statistics earlier this year. For every violent crime logged by suburban police, about six are reported in the city.
* Serious property crime dropped by 8 percent in 1999. The combined rate of burglaries, larcenies, and motor vehicle thefts was about 23 per 1,000 residents - roughly half that of Philadelphia, which last year ranked as the fifth-safest big city in America.
* Property, not people, remains the chief target of suburban criminals. Of the serious offenses reported last year in the Pennsylvania suburbs, about 90 percent involved nonviolent property crimes.
* About one-third of all suburban police departments reported increased crime. However, most serve areas where crime rates already were, and remain, low - for example, Hatboro in Montgomery County; Newtown in Bucks County; Upper Providence in Delaware County; and Easttown in Chester County.
The overall data from the four counties fall squarely in line with trends for the region and the nation. In Philadelphia, reported crime dropped 1 percent last year and homicides were down 14 percent. New Jersey statistics show crime falling 6 percent in 1999, to the state's lowest level in nearly 30 years.
Crime has been on the wane across America since 1991, and experts cite several key reasons: good economic times, longer prison terms, an aging population, and the easing of the crack cocaine epidemic and its attendant gun violence.
"The drug market has been shrinking, and the economy has been strong, particularly down at the lower economic levels," said Arthur Blumstein, director of the National Consortium on Violence Research, a training and study center at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "So people have been working instead of doing drugs, and when you're working, you have a greater incentive to stay clean."
And what of good police work?
"Isolating any one police tactic is hard to evaluate," Blumstein said, adding with a chuckle: "I'm sure each police department has a tactic they used which they think is responsible" for reducing crime.
True enough. But few local police are boasting simply of old-school, ship-'em-upstate methods.
Instead, police in suburbs where crime has tumbled point to strategies as varied as the communities themselves - from bike patrols to anti-drug task forces.
Whatever the reasons, several low-income, crime-ravaged communities were among those posting the greatest improvements last year.
In the city of Chester, Delaware County, the state's highest crime rate has fallen off dramatically.
Chester's violent crimes were down 19 percent in 1999 and have dropped even more over the long haul. The city's murder rate was down, and reports of rape, robbery and aggravated assault were at the lowest levels in at least 10 years. Property crime also fell sharply.
To Police Commissioner Wendell Butler, the sounds of effective policing are not siren wails, but the roar of bulldozers and the clank of towing hitches.
Since 1996, Butler said, Chester has leveled hundreds of vacant, condemned housing units, including the aging, crime-ridden McCafferty Village project in the city's West End. At the same time, tow trucks have been clearing away abandoned cars and trucks, leaving drug dealers with less camouflage for their illicit trade, and fewer places for stashing drugs and weapons.
Meanwhile, the state-sponsored Weed and Seed program, an anti-crime and community-development initiative, has "tripled the number of uniformed officers that people see on the streets, especially on weekends," Butler said.
Similar methods have produced similar results in the Montgomery County seat of Norristown, which also gets Weed and Seed money.
"We're understaffed, so I'm accepting help from wherever we can get it," said Norristown Police Chief Russell Bono, whose officers work overtime with state and county police to control drug trafficking and other problems in targeted neighborhoods.
"Drugs drive the crime in almost every community," said Bono. "We are just out there pounding the beats and having a zero-tolerance attitude."
In Coatesville, Chester County, Police Chief Michael McMahon attributes much of the borough's recent crime reversal to the 1997 jailing of a street gang. The Young Guns were blamed for a rash of drug-related shootings and robberies in and near Coatesville.
"I'm knocking on wood" that the trend lasts, McMahon said.
Crackdowns in high-crime communities can pay dividends in surrounding areas. In East Fallowfield Township, Chester County, where theft reports have been halved over the last several years, Police Chief Peter Mango says neighboring Coatesville's anti-drug focus has helped.
"The majority of our property crimes are committed by people who are drug-addicted, so we've been very aggressive in that regard," Mango said. "Coatesville has also gotten a lot more aggressive in drug enforcement, and we've really reaped the benefits of that."
Key arrests have caused lasting ripples elsewhere.
In the central Montgomery County suburb of Upper Gwynedd, property crime dropped 51 percent last year. Police Chief Robert Freed credits a 1998 grand jury investigation that cracked a suburban burglary and car theft ring.
Members of the ring, mostly young men who lived in the area, "would steal through at night on bikes or on foot. They would take change, cell phones, whatever they could find loose in the cars," Freed said. "They went so far as to go into garages and push the cars out."
If keys had been left in the cars, the thieves drove to Philadelphia chop shops and sold the vehicles for drug money, Freed said. "But once the grand jury called people to testify, the crimes slowed down."
In more compact boroughs where property crime has plummeted, police credit foot beats and bike patrols.
Doylestown Police Chief James Donnelly assigns officers to walk beats whenever bars in the Bucks County borough swell with patrons, typically Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Compared with the annual average from 1994 through 1998, Doylestown's property crime dropped 19 percent last year.
(The Inquirer analysis, and the accompanying chart, contrast the 1999 crime figures with a 1994-98 average, because the longer time frame evens out year-to-year fluctuations and permits more meaningful comparisons.)
In Bristol, Bucks County, property crime fell 24 percent from the previous five-year average. Chief Frank Peranteau said nighttime bike patrols may have helped deter potential burglars and thieves.
"You can spot a marked car a mile away, but on a bike you can roll up on a situation before people realize there's an officer there," Peranteau said.
In June 1999, Bensalem officials enacted a controversial ordinance that banned juveniles from township streets during school hours. The township also received federal money for overtime and other police costs for enforcing the curfew.
The law was the first of its kind in lower Bucks County. Today, about a dozen neighboring communities have followed suit.
And for good reason. Bensalem police say 70 percent of the township's crime is committed by juveniles. With the curfew in effect for half of last year, burglaries fell to their lowest level in six years.
"I think that is a direct effect of the program," said Fred Harran, Bensalem's deputy director of public safety. "It has increased the number of police on the streets and targeted residential areas, where most [burglaries] are going to occur."
Larry King's e-mail address is email@example.com
* Inquirer staff writer Alletta Emeno and Alicia A. Caldwell, Stephanie Doster, Kelly Wolfe, Lee Drutman and Kayce T. Ataiyero of the Inquirer suburban staff contributed to this article.