Reading news accounts of gangs, crime and violence, it?s easy to get the idea that Santa Rosa is becoming a dangerous place.

Some longtime residents believe the city has changed and even say they?re afraid at times.

So it was reassuring last week to learn that crime in Santa Rosa is down ? and has been falling consistently for 20 years.

Santa Rosa?s population has increased 48 percent since 1988, yet the number of homicides, forcible rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, vehicle thefts and larcenies decreased 34 percent over the same period, according to data compiled by the city.

More than 6,700 crimes were reported in Santa Rosa in 1988. There were just over 4,400 crimes reported last year.

The decline is most pronounced in the category of property crime, with the rate falling from 59.3 per 1,000 residents in 1988 to 23.3 in 2008.

Violent crime also has dropped significantly, though police say direct comparisons can?t be made prior to 2003 because of changes in the classification system for assault. Since 2003, however, violent crime is down 27 percent.

The violent-crime rate for 2008 was 4.8 per 1,000 residents. During the period from 1988-2002, violent crime began to fall after reaching a peak of 5.9 in 1995, suggesting the downward trend could be more than 10 years old.

Crime has been declining nationally also, but records show that it has fallen faster in Santa Rosa than the national average.

It will take more than statistics to change perceptions created by drive-by shootings, a thriving gang culture and other forms of violence. But proactive steps taken by police and the community should give Santa Rosa residents a greater sense of security.

Police staffing is up since voter approval of Measure O, the quarter-cent sales tax passed in 2004 for public safety. And, despite the city?s current budget woes, labor concessions by police officers may prevent layoffs and preserve stepped-up patrols.

Measure O also earmarked money for gang prevention programs to head off crime before it happens. Those programs are run through the Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks Department in close cooperation with the Police Department.

Santa Rosa also formed the Mayor?s Gang Prevention Task Force, which sponsors events such as a two-day conference in February that shared effective techniques from around the state for keeping gangs in check.

It?s important to remain vigilant, but let?s not overlook our successes.