WASHINGTON - Serious crimes reported to the police dropped for an eighth consecutive year in 1999, down 7 percent from the year before and by far the longest-running crime decline on record, the FBI reported Sunday.
The bureau's preliminary figures for 1999 extended a trend begun in 1992 that is now almost three times longer than the second-longest decline, the three years from 1982 through 1984.
The FBI crime records go back through 1960.
''This may be finally undoing the great rise in crime of the late 1960s,'' said professor Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
The nation's longest and steepest crime rise - increases of 10.2 percent to 13.8 percent from 1965 through 1969 - came as postwar baby boomers reached the crime-prone ages of 15 to 25 and ''civil rights and Vietnam war protests increased distrust of government,'' Blumstein said.
Blumstein and other academic experts also pointed to a slowing in 1999 of the crime decline in the nation's largest cities as a reminder that crime rates cannot go down forever. ''They are the leaders,'' he said, ''both on the way up and on the way down.''
The FBI report showed that all seven major types of crime were down not only nationwide, but also in each region of the nation, and in suburbs, rural areas and in cities of all sizes.
The violent crimes of murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault were down a combined 7 percent, led by murder and robbery, each down 8 percent. Rape and assault were down 7 percent each.
The property crimes of burglary, auto theft and larceny-theft also were down a combined 7 percent, led by an 11 percent drop in burglaries. Auto theft was down 8 percent, larceny-theft 6 percent.
''Now is not the time, however, to become complacent,'' Attorney General Janet Reno said. ''Let's try harder. We must redouble our efforts by providing alternatives to crime as well as tough enforcement.''
Politicians of both major parties pointed proudly to anti-crime measures they championed.
President Clinton said the report ''confirms that our anti-crime strategy - more police officers on the beat, fewer illegal guns and violent criminals on the street - is having a powerful impact.'' Clinton pushed through funding for 100,000 more local police officers and passed the Brady law, which requires background checks for gun purchasers.
The House Judiciary crime subcommittee chairman, Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., while crediting strategies developed by local governments in community policing for which Clinton won federal funding, highlighted a GOP-sponsored law he said has induced 27 states to impose longer prison terms in exchange for federal money to build prisons.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said the results ''were largely due to the leadership at the state, local and federal level of Republicans committed to arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating violent criminals.'' GOP-backed legislation has provided $700 million a year for prison construction, Hatch noted.
Clinton said further progress could come from passing his remaining gun control legislation, like child-safety locks and background checks on buyers at gun shows. Hatch, reflecting GOP opposition that has blocked those measures, noted the crime reductions came without enacting more extensive gun control laws.
Academic experts credited both parties' favorite anti-crime remedies but also a wider range of factors, including some beyond control of politicians, like the aging of baby boomers past crime-prone years.
To that list, professor James Alan Fox of Northeastern University added ''evaporating crack cocaine markets and the violent crack gangs that drove the numbers up in the 1980s, smarter policing, increased interest in prevention down to the grass roots, and a better economy giving cities more to invest in crime control.'' The economy also helped by providing jobs for some who might otherwise turn to crime, Fox said.
Like Blumstein, Fox noted the smaller crime rate declines in the largest cities.
''They will be the first to reach the bottom,'' Fox said, noting that murders in New York actually rose a bit in 1999, from 633 to 671.
''The challenge is to be sure the numbers don't go back up to any great degree,'' Fox said.
The nation's record prison population provides only ''temporary relief,'' Fox said, ''because those people will come out of prison and many will still have inadequate skills and bad attitudes.''
The FBI report also showed:
-Murder, the most fully reported crime, was down 2 percent in cities over 500,000 but between 7 percent and 14 percent in smaller cities, 12 percent in suburbs and 17 percent in rural areas.
-Overall reported crime dropped 10 percent in the West, 8 percent in the Midwest, 7 percent in the Northeast and 4 percent in the South.
-Overall crime was down 7 percent in rural areas, 8 percent in suburbs, 7 or 8 percent in cities under 500,000 and 6 percent in cities over 500,000.
The FBI figures come from more than 17,000 police agencies around the country.