The year is drawing to a close with homicides in the District at a 45-year low, reflecting a national trend that law enforcement officials are attributing to multipronged crime-prevention strategies that include advances in communication and coordination.
With just two days left in the year, according to preliminary numbers from the police department, the District has had 138 homicides compared with 184 at the same time last year, setting up the city to record the lowest number of homicides since 1964, when 132 were reported killed. Metropolitan Police Department officials attribute the decline to a “perfect storm” of crime-fighting strategies, including a new culture of communication within the police department.
“The level of involvement far surpasses anything I’ve ever seen,” said Metropolitan Police Commander Daniel Hickson, a more than 30-year veteran of the department and former homicide detective. “To imagine we’re at 138 is unbelievable.”
Commander Hickson said the District - known two decades ago as the “murder capital” of the country - has made progress by targeting violent gun offenders and emphasizing community policing and communication among officers.
The result this year has been a drop in violent crime and property crime. The sharpest drop was in homicides, at 25 percent, followed by a 16 percent decline in sexual assaults and a 10 percent decrease in car thefts.
The department has also reported a 75 percent homicide closure rate so far this year and put a lid on violence in the Trinidad neighborhood, ending a spasm of killing in the Northeast Washington neighborhood that grabbed national headlines last year.
Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has said that success in closing homicide cases has been in part because of her signature All Hands on Deck initiative during which all officers, including recruits, work patrol shifts over three-day periods.
The District’s numbers are part of a downward trend reflected in many other major cities and nationwide.
According to the FBI’s uniform crime report, law enforcement agencies across the country experienced a decrease in violent crime for the first six months of 2009 from the same period the year earlier. Violent crime, which includes homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, decreased by 4.4 percent.
The largest decrease in violent crimes - defined as homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault - came in the homicide rate. The homicide rate was down 10 percent from the same period in 2008, according to the report, but the violent-crime numbers declined in every category.
New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia all have seen significant declines in homicides, according to nearly complete annual data from all three departments provided to The Washington Times on Tuesday. As of Sunday, homicides had fallen by 11 percent in New York compared with the same period in 2008; as of Tuesday, homicides had declined by 9 percent in Philadelphia; and as of Sunday, Los Angeles had an 11 percent decrease.
However, several cities reported an increase in homicides. One of them was Baltimore, which reported 235 homicides as of Tuesday compared with 233 last year.
In addition, the same FBI report had property crimes - defined as burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson - decreasing even more significantly than violent crimes, declining 6.1 percent overall in the first half of 2009 versus the first six months of 2008.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey said he thinks the decline in Philadelphia and other cities is in large part because of more effective use of crime data.
“Police departments are using data in a more timely manner and more wisely,” he said.
Commissioner Ramsey, a former D.C. police chief, said Philadelphia created patrol beats and checkpoints at the 125 most violent intersections in the city and subsequently experienced a 22 percent reduction in violent crime in those areas. He said he also focused police resources on the most violent police districts at times when violent crimes were most likely to occur.
In another indication of a declining crime rate in 2009, the deaths of police officers in the line of duty was at its lowest number in the past 50 years.
According to a study by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 124 officers were killed while on duty, the lowest number since 1959, when 108 were killed. The study found a 7 percent decline in officer deaths when comparing 2009 with 2008.
But the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund also found reason for concern in 2009, as the number of firearm-related cop killings increased 23 percent from 39 in 2008 to 48 in 2009. The overall decrease was largely driven by a decrease in traffic-related fatalities.
FBI spokesman Bill Carter said the bureau does not generally comment on trends in crime statistics because of the complexity of factors that contribute to them.
“The amount and type of crime varies from place to place depending on a number of factors that affect crime in a particular community. We don’t give a single reason why,” he said.
Some analysts expected crimes to increase in 2009 because of tough economic times. But James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston, said the link between the economy and crime is largely a myth.
“All the research on economic indicators and violent crime in particular show there really isn’t a link,” Mr. Fox said. “People don’t essentially become criminals because they are out of a job; the decision to pursue a life of crime is made independently of the economy.”
However, Mr. Fox said an indirect connection between the economy and crime can be made in some cases. When the economy lags, he said, fewer resources are available for police budgets and other crime-prevention programs, which can have an impact on crime rates, particularly property offenses.
c Sarah Abruzzese contributed to this report.