By the number, D.C. homicides fall

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“Each year that we didn’t hit it, someone wrote about it and then people took shots at me for it,” she said. “But you can’t let them change the vision.”

During most of her 23 years with the Metropolitan Police Department, the benchmark could have been seen as an improbable if not laughable goal.

In 1991, the year after Chief Lanier joined the department as a patrol officer, the District topped out at its highest-ever murder tally with 482 homicides. The murder rate — the number of homicides divided by the city’s population — stood at 80.6 killings per 100,000 residents, a staggering figure among the country’s big cities.

Even 10 years ago, the homicide total was 264, according to data from the FBI, while the murder rate was about 46.

“It’s been troubling my whole career,” Chief Lanier said. “For so long of being the ‘murder capital,’ that’s bothered me.”

In addition to the loss of life, the police chief said she was sensitive to the implications of a violent city.

“The national perception, the perception of others, it’ll keep people from coming here, keep businesses from flourishing,” Chief Lanier said. “Because that homicide number was so prominent for so many years, I think it has started to change the perception now when they see dramatic reductions with homicides and other crimes.”

The city’s population, at 606,000 in 1990, dropped to about 554,000 in 2004. The number of residents has rebounded to 632,323, according to census estimates released last month. While much of the growth can be attributed to young professionals attracted to a regional economy — anchored by the federal government — that remained relatively stable in the face of a national economic recession, homicide levels have been less of a deterrent for new residents.

Based on homicide totals through Sunday, the District’s murder rate would stand at about 13.8.

While the chances of being murdered are far lower than being a victim of another type of crime, making clear homicide reductions was an important step in stemming residents’ fears and changing perceptions.

“The scariest thing for people in the community really is the number of homicides,” Chief Lanier said. “And, really, it should be the most important because you can’t get a life back once it’s lost.”

Public perception about crime doesn’t always match the direction crime trends are headed because residents often focus on the particularly grisly crimes that make headlines, criminologists said. As a result, police might feel more pressure to reduce homicides than other types of crime.

“If you could have homicides go down 20 percent but overall crime go up, you’d probably take it,” Mr. Fox said.

That scenario is exactly what played out in the District last year. Homicides were reduced by 20 percent, from 108 in 2011 to 88 as of Monday. Meanwhile, overall crime is up by about 4 percent, according to the latest available crime data from the police department.

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