- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2012

Every city has a number.

For Baltimore in recent years, it’s 200. For Chicago, it’s 500. And in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, it’s 300. In the District, the number is 100.

It’s a threshold for the year’s homicides. But more importantly, it’s a gauge of success or failure that often creates or perpetuates an urban identity.

After two decades of generally declining homicide levels, the District recorded fewer than 100 killings in 2012 for the first time since the Kennedy administration. And while overall crime has increased and an indiscriminate pattern of violent robberies persists, the diminishing homicide total has provided validation for a city seeking to shed its entrenched reputation as the nation’s “murder capital” and consolidate the fragile gains that come with a rising population and a resilient local economy.

It’s a struggle that persists in similar fashion in cities across the nation.

“Homicide is a major leading indicator of major cities,” said Jens Ludwig, professor and director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. “It is the thing that is most damaging in terms of driving businesses and people out of a city.”

The “number,” which varies dramatically from city to city, starts as a goal or a fear. It can be imposed by politicians, special interest groups or editorial writers. But it can change the way the residents of a city perceive their home.

In the District, the number 100 came from police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who says she has thought it was attainable since she was appointed in 2006. From her first year as chief, when there were 181 killings, it would require cutting the number of homicides by nearly half.

With just 88 killings reported in 2012, the District met her goal.

Around the country

Gang violence and drug wars turned the streets of major American cities into shooting galleries during the 1990s, and murder rates swelled to record levels. Homicides topped 2,200 in New York City in 1990, totaled 482 in the District in 1991, and exceeded 1,100 in Los Angeles in 1992.

And even though homicides are not a complete picture of a city’s crime scene, it’s the statistic that resonates most with residents.

“When it comes for tracking crimes levels, homicides are what Americans tend to be most impressed with,” said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Gary LaFree, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland, said the prevalent opinion once was that crime was “something that happened like an earthquake. You couldn’t do anything about it.” Throughout the 1990s, curbing violent crime became a national priority, and the number of killings in big cities nationwide tumbled as the crack cocaine epidemic waned.

In addition to the District’s declines, New York City was prepared for its lowest total since the 1970s, with 414 killings reported through Friday. Los Angeles had recorded 297 homicides.

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